On Feb. 20, AC Milan welcome Barcelona to the San Siro in one of the UEFA Champions League's hottest round of 16 ties. Is this mission impossible? Although it might seem the Italian giants are hovering over the European trapdoor, a number of simple steps can be taken to help them compete.
Firstly, it is worth considering Milan's domestic situation.The Rossoneri currently occupy fifth in Serie A. Sunday Jan. 27's 1-0 victory over Atalanta signalled an important step forward, especially with Juventus, Lazio, Roma and Fiorentina dropping points. Despite remaining in the Champions League, this side's seasonal objective is to automatically qualify for the competition next year.
Massimiliano Allegri's recent formation change has provided a more effective balance between midfield and attack. M'Baye Niang looks impressive on the right side of a forward three, summed up by his recent assist for Stephan El Shaarawy's winner.
Should the manager stick with 4-3-3 against Barcelona or revert back to 4-2-3-1? It's a difficult question.
Barcelona have shown little weakness this season. One loss in 21 La Liga fixtures indicates Tito Vilanova's men are ready to capture the Champions League crown for the third time in seven years.
Interestingly, Barcelona's recent 3-2 loss came against a Real Sociedad team who were playing 4-2-3-1. Successful strikes from Gonzalo Castro, Imanol Agirretxe and an own goal from Javier Mascherano indicated the seemingly invincible team isn't without its problems.
Gerard Pique's red card was an important factor in this match. Although Allegri will be tempted to set his formation up similarly to Sociedad, Milan need to play offensively in the home portion of the encounter.
Giampaolo Pazzini has a tendency to drift out of matches if he doesn't receive support. He completed 11 passes, contributed zero tackles and failed to register a shot on target against Atalanta. The striker will be gobbled up by Barcelona's defence if Niang and El Shaarawy aren't playing further up the wings.
The Spanish league leaders excel when they are given time on the ball. In recent weeks, teams including Espanyol, Cordoba and Osasuna have received a thumping due to their inability to stop Barcelona's midfield pinging short passes around. This has been the norm for several years.
Milan need to stop the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets settling into the familiar pattern. Kevin Prince-Boateng plays deeper in the 4-3-3 and has the energy to lead his side's quest for possession.
Which formation should AC Milan deploy against Barcelona?
Riccardo Montolivo—who contributed three tackles and seven interceptions against Atalanta—also has an important job to do. He needs to occupy the deep-lying playmaker role in a disciplined manner. If he settles on the halfway line, Boateng can hustle across the entire width of the pitch.
An interesting component of this fixture will be Kevin Constant's role on the left. He is likely to face Dani Alves, whose future remains uncertain at the Camp Nou (via The Daily Mail).
Constant's relentless energy on the left—combined with Niang's ridiculous pace on the right—could be Milan's most potent method of attack. Alves is likely to be caught out of position—allowing the opposition to burst forward with intent.
Milan have failed to overcome Italian juggernauts including Inter, Roma, Juventus and Napoli this season. In the Champions League, both Malaga and Zenit St. Petersburg have beaten the side that lacked confidence towards the end of 2012.
Greater ambition is needed against Barcelona. Risks need to be taken—particularly in the first leg—to assert dominance over the Spanish favourites.
Right now, a diverse 4-3-3 formation appears to be the best way of competing alongside the Catalan club. A combination of attacking support, industrious central midfield and counter-attacking pace could bring European triumph back to the San Siro.
How can Milan compete with Barcelona? Let me know in the comments section below and be sure to follow me on Twitter:
All statistics in the article are courtesy of Whoscored.