AC Milan vs. Barcelona: Build Up to the UCL Last 16 Tie
We're now at the business end of the UEFA Champions League, and AC Milan vs. Barcelona is shaping up to be one of the key ties of this year's tournament.
The two are no strangers to each other, having met several times in recent years. Barca have had the edge, knocking the Rossoneri out in 2006 and 2012, but this rejuvenated Milan side will want to prove that they're the match of anyone in Europe.
In all, these two behemoths of European football have clashed 15 times on the continent's biggest stage, with Barcelona recording six wins to Milan's four and scoring 22 goals to the Italians' 19.
So what's the news and line-up predictions ahead of 2013's edition? Read on to find out.
Milan Need Their Run of Good Form to Continue—without Mario Balotelli
If there's to be any hope of stopping Barcelona, Milan will have to be at their very best.
Luckily for them, that's exactly what they seem to be at right now. Massimiliano Allegri's team has actually been the most consistent in Italy since October, and are only fourth because of a disastrous start.
But even though Milan look all the better with the addition of Mario Balotelli, they'll have to do without the precociously talented Italian because he's cup-tied, having featured for Manchester City earlier in the season.
Balo's omission will give Giampaolo Pazzini a chance to impress up front. If he can score against the Catalan Giants, Allegri's going to have a headache up front for the rest of the season when choosing between Pazzini and Balotelli.
The Rossoneri might also be without Stephan El Shaaraway, who is struggling with a knee problem, so the Milan boss is expected to stick with Kevin-Prince Boateng and M'Baye Niang, the wide forwards he used for the side's 2-1 win over Parma last week.
Barcelona Name Their Squad—and Leave David Villa at Home
Xavi returns to the Barca fold ahead of this week's clash, but there's no place for David Villa, who is still not fit enough for active duty despite being back in first-team training.
The midfielder, meanwhile, missed the weekend's trip to Granada with a hamstring problem, but was back training and named in Vilanova's 20-man squad for the trip to Milan. Like Villa, Adriano is also absent, after developing a muscle problem during the weekend.
The official Barcelona squad for the game is: Valdes, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Pique, Fabregas, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Thiago, Mascherano, Bartra, Sergio, Pedro, Jordi Alba, Montoya, Song, Tello.
Expect Goals at Both Ends of the Pitch
Even without Balotelli and El Shaarawy, Milan still pose a massive threat in front of the goal—especially as Barca have been weak defensively in recent weeks.
The Blaugrana have gone nine games without a clean sheet—against less potent opposition. So with a front three trident of Pazzini, Boateng and Niang, Milan will put the Barca back line under constant pressure, especially as the Catalan's full backs prefer to get forward.
That said, they'll have to, because there'll be a certain diminutive Argentinian at the other end tormenting defenders for fun.
"Mark Messi out of the Game" Says Milan Owner Silvio Berlusconi
Former Italian Prime Minister and AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi is never shy of an opinion ... in fact, he's never shy of anything.
And while you'd think that with a crucial Italian election just days away he'd be focused on politics, it seems Silvio prefers to think about the upcoming clash with Barcelona.
Talking to Italian radio on Monday, Berlusconi said:
It will be very difficult to beat Barcelona. I still haven’t found the time to talk to boss Massimiliano Allegri, but I won’t tell him what side to pick – I’ve never done that.
I know the role of the President and that of the Coach—I respect those—but a President has the right to give advice to his Coach.
On this occasion my suggestion would be that Messi is man-marked.
With a Lot of Attacking Talent on Show, This One Is All About Defenders
Both sides possess the potential to score—and both run the risk of conceding. Milan have kept just five clean sheets in the league this year, often conceding against opposition that has struggled in front of the goal elsewhere.
Barca have also been letting them in at their end, even if they score so much at the other end it doesn't matter. At this level neither team can afford to be complacent at the back. A single goal could change the shape of this tie completely, so the defences will have to be at their best.
Dani Alves and Jordi Abla should be instructed to play a little more conservatively than usual against Milan, because with the Rossoneri's 4-3-3, Barca will be seeing the brunt of the attacks on the flanks.
Tito Vilanova will of course be bringing one of the most attractive, attacking sides in the history of the game to the San Siro, so Allegri's back line will be under the hammer for 90 minutes as well.
This game should be end-to-end excitement, and will be won by the side that makes the fewest mistakes.
"Barca Have Defects" Says Flamini
Plenty of people will disagree, but Mathieu Flamini believes Barca have areas of real weakness that can be exposed. The midfielder believes that the Catalan's inherent strengths also mean they have areas to exploit.
As an example, the Frenchmen cited his former Arsenal teammate Cesc Fabregas.
“Fabregas is a player with many qualities, as he has incredible vision and is also very good in front of goal," Flamini told AC Milan's official TV channel. "As for his defects, at times he ‘forgets’ to defend. We will do everything possible to surprise Barcelona.”
Physicality and Tactical Awareness Will Be Key
Though El Shaarawy is still a doubt for the Rossoneri, he was part of a group who worked on sprint training this Monday morning, alongside Traore, Boateng, Bojan, De Sciglio and Mexes.
According to the Milan website, the rest of the squad hit the gym, before rejoining the sprinters for an afternoon session concentrated on tactics.
Earlier in the season, Celtic proved that Barca can be undone by a physical approach to the game. And while the Rossoneri are certainly more tactically and skilfully nuanced than the Glaswegians, they will certainly be looking to win the physical battles.
As for Milan, both Roma and Fiorentina have showed that when pressed and faced with a quick, passing game, they struggle. Barca can press and pass better than anyone, so Milan will be in trouble if they lose shape.
"Messi Is from Another Planet – but Milan Can Win" Says Gattuso
It's inevitable that Milan are being written off by most commentators before this tie. Barcelona have been imperious in Europe and dominant at home, and continue to somehow improve what had before seemed like a perfect squad.
But one former Milan legend thinks that the Rossoneri can cause an upset.
Speaking to Mundo Deportivo, Gennaro Gattuso said: "In football you never know. Football is not a logic that is written down, football is played."
Gattuso knows plenty about the magic and illogical nature of the sport at this level. He was part of the 2006 Italy squad that went undefeated, taking the World Cup. Also, he was part of the Milan side that won the Champions League in 2003, 2007—and famously lost to Liverpool in 2005.
“In principle, Barca are much stronger, but last year Nocerino made it 1-1 on the scoreboard…Football is strange," Gattuso said.
A Big Chance for Bojan?
At the end of the season, the terms of the complicated deal that saw Bojan Krkic move from Barcelona to Rome are almost up.
Roma bought the forward from Barca while agreeing to agree to sell him back after two years at a slight profit, before ultimately lending him to Milan following his less-than-spectacular debut season at the Stadio Olimpico.
Bojan has looked better for Milan, but he'll need to impress on the biggest stage if he's to win admirers, because should he go back to his boyhood club, it will surely mean a lengthy spell on the bench.
The Spaniard says he's happy at Milan, telling Barcelona's official site:
"I'm playing for the team is important to me, and even more so because of the participation I’ve had. In the footballing world you never know what can happen. The situation isn’t easy, because I’m between two or three possible options. At the moment I just want to keep on fighting and focus on performing well for AC Milan, [because] that’s where I play.”
As for his current side's chances against his Alma Mater, Bojan said:
The tie will be very complicated. They are unstoppable. The club keeps on promoting players, maintaining the team and its philosophy. I think they’ll be around for years to come. We know that we’re playing against the best club in the world, but we’ll have our chances. We have good players and we’ll try to stay in the tie as long as possible.
If Bojan is trying to convince Silvio Berlusconi to let him stay in Milan, this would be a good chance to make an impression.