What Barcelona Should Fear Most from AC Milan in Champions League Last 16
It was a case of old foes renewing ties when the great and good of the game pulled the balls out of the tombolas in Nyon, Switzerland.
AC Milan and Barcelona. Two of the European giants. Two of the most successful clubs in the history of football. Eleven European Cups between them and a shared history of showcasing the finest players on the planet.
The two sides met last season at the quarterfinal stage. Milan had thrashed Arsenal 4-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza but was lucky to go through after the Gunners scored three in a manic first half at the Emirates. Milan held on.
In the first leg of the tie against Barcelona, Milan held on. That was a worthy enough effort after Barcelona had destroyed Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16, Lionel Messi becoming the first player to score five in a Champions League match. Alessandro Nesta was magnificent as the home side threw up two defensive lines to keep Barcelona at bay.
It couldn't last that long at Camp Nou, and it didn't. Messi struck first from the spot, Antonio Nocerino pulled one back then Messi hit another from 12 yards. Andres Iniesta finished the job in the second half.
It was only the third time in nine Champions League ties that Milan had been knocked out after a 0-0 result at home.
What does Barcelona have to worry about ahead of this latest encounter? Not nearly as much as Milan.
Other than the departed Seydou Keita and Issac Cuenca, who has finally recovered from a serious knee injury, Barcelona could field the same teams it did in both legs last year. Milan has lost some notable contributors over the same period.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands out in what is an extensive list. Nesta departed for Montreal while Thiago Silva followed the shy and retiring Swede to Paris. Alexandre Pato left for Corinthians in January.
Inspirational captain Massimo Ambrosini is unlikely to feature in the first leg while Nigel de Jong, who Barcelona's Spain players would have loved to meet again after the 2010 World Cup final, is out until May with a ruptured Achilles.
Milan's domestic season started woefully and Massimiliano Allegri's side sits 12 points behind Juventus and results remain erratic in 2013. The Rossoneri looked well off the pace in a 1-0 win over Atalanta on Sunday; and this is Serie A pace.
Perhaps the best gauge of where Milan stands in Europe right now is that it only nicked one point off Champions League debutant Malaga in the group stage. It is a far cry from the late 1980s and early 1990s when Milan bestrode Europe.
Still, it has the players to turn it on for a day when required. Stephan El Shaarawy has almost single-handedly saved the team from greater ignominy this season with 15 Serie A goals and match-winning turns against Zenit and Anderlecht in Milan's only two victories in Europe.
Robinho has faded somewhat but in Kevin Prince-Boateng Milan possesses a trickster who can cause Barcelona's back four problems, as he did in the group stage of last season's competition, the aggregate result of which was 5-4 to Barcelona. M'Baye Niang is an exciting prospect but will probably not be entrusted with a game like this.
Milan's European record will count for little when Barcelona visits on February 20. Tito Vilanova's side is the form team in Europe and Milan is struggling in a league that has fallen well behind England, Spain and Germany in terms of quality. Allegri will be more than happy with a 0-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza.
Unfortunately for Milan, that will suit Barcelona as well. But the odds on a scoreless first leg are pretty long anyway.
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