AC Milan: Picking the Strongest Starting XI to Knock Down Anderlecht
After picking up only one point from the back-to-back games with Malaga, AC Milan go into this week's Champions League game in Anderlecht knowing they need a win.
They are fortunate that, with only five points picked up from their first four Group C games, they still occupy the second qualifying spot in the group. While Malaga are all but out of reach at the top of the group, the fact that Anderlecht and Zenit St. Petersburg have taken points off each other has helped the Rossoneri stay in contention.
But a win away to the Belgians on Wednesday is still vital. A Milan triumph coupled with another Malaga victory against Zenit would see Il Diavolo seal qualification, but even a draw in Anderlecht would make the last round of fixtures extremely nervy for Milan.
With this in mind, I go through the starting 11 that will best serve the Rossoneri in this crunch game.
GK: Christian Abbiati
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Two blunders against Napoli at the weekend and talk of a rift with vice president Adriano Galliani will not have done Christian Abbiati's confidence any good going into this week's Champions League fixtures.
But the spat has been played down (via Football Italia), and a player of Abbiati's experience knows that sometimes you have an off night.
Abbiati is still a better keeper than Marco Amelia and, indeed, less prone to mistakes than his younger colleague.
Case in point of Abbitati's continued ability to perform at the top level was a fabulous save he made against Arsenal in last year's competition.
With Milan cruising 4-0 at the San Siro, the fact seemed trivial and merely compounding Arsenal's misery, but Abbiati celebrated like he had scored the winner. With the 20-20 vision provided by hindsight and the knowledge of what then happened at the Emirates, we know how vital the save turned out to be.
Defence: Mexes, Acerbi, Yepes
Philippe Mexès, battling away as ever
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When you're handed lemons, make lemonade.
I've been saying since this column back in September that Milan ought to copy Juventus' successful 3-5-2, and while coach Massimiliano Allegri has tinkered, he hasn't reached this exact formation yet.
Given that injuries to Bonera, Antonini and Abate make it much more difficult for Milan to field a back four, three at the back has the sweet taste of lemonade to me. It makes a lot more sense than playing Kevin Constant completely out of position as Allegri did at the weekend.
Unfortunately, the three defenders in question are hardly the formidable rock that Milan would like to depend upon. Still, they are the best they can currently field. With the raiding wide men I'm about to outline in the next slide, it would make a lot of sense for these three to hold a deep line, partially disguising their lack of pace.
Midfield: De Sciglio, de Jong, Nocerino, Boateng, Constant (Abate)
Boateng could be reinvented in a deeper position
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Mattia De Sciglio is one of the home-grown youngsters around whom Milan must start to build their next generation. Others like El-Shaarawy, Pato and Bojan grab the headlines, but De Sciglio is also worthy of praise.
The implementation of wing-backs would give Milan much-needed width and attacking options that play to the strengths of the players they possess. Additionally, it draws defenders away from the middle of the pitch, allowing the strikers greater freedom. Abate would be first choice to join De Sciglio but he may not be fit in time for Wednesday's clash, so I have put him in parentheses, with Constant making an able replacement.
In the middle, Nigel de Jong and Antonio Nocerino are strong, combative players who give the side a solid backbone. But it is reimagining Kevin-Prince Boateng that I think could be a real masterstroke for Allegri.
Much as Andrea Pirlo only realised his true potential when occupying a deeper role, the athletic Boateng could actually be more well-suited to a traditional midfield role. He would still be given more license to roam forward than his colleagues, but his natural speed, height and physical presence mean that he could also be useful in winning the all-important midfield territory.
Strikers: Krkić, El-Shaarawy
Milan's new star keeps rising
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Two more goals for Stephan El-Shaarawy to overturn a 2-0 deficit away to Napoli saw the little pharaoh continue his unbelievable start to the season. Top scorer in Serie A and only just out of his teenage years, the world is at El-Shaarawy's feet.
Only an unexpected injury would see him left out of the Milan XI.
But who will partner him is trickier. Giampaolo Pazzini is one choice and the ex-Fiorentina and Inter player hasn't acclimatised too badly to the other side of the San Siro. But he may also take up positions that are too similar to El-Shaarawy's and could be better utilised as a substitute.
The same goes for Alexandre Pato. With Ibrahimovic gone, many thought this year could be Pato's time to shine at last, but he's quickly been usurped by an even younger star. He missed a penalty last week and, much like Pazzini, is perhaps too similar to El-Shaarawy for them to function well as a unit.
All of which leaves Bojan Krkić. I spoke last week about how the best is yet to come from the Spaniard, and while we yet to see enough of it so far for Milan, the potential combination with El-Shaarawy is a mouth-watering one.