AC Milan and Barcelona will play the first leg of their highly anticipated Champions League Round of 16 matchup on Wednesday at San Siro. The Spanish giants enter as the favorites, but their Italian counterparts have been in top form lately.
Barca is always viewed as a top contender in the Champions League, and they didn't disappoint in the group stage. The La Liga leaders dropped just one match, to an upstart Celtic side, and looked every bit like a club capable of making a deep run.
As always, the charge is led by the world's top player, Lionel Messi. The winner of four straight Ballon d'Or awards, illustrating his dominance across the football spectrum, Messi scored five times during group play. There are times when he's simply unstoppable.
In an ideal world, Milan would be able to focus their defensive efforts on the Argentina international, but that's just not possible given all the offensive firepower Barcelona features. It's that amazing depth which sets the club apart.
If the Rossoneri made the decision to do whatever it takes to shut down Messi, players like Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas would pick up the slack. It also explains why the Blaugrana's top striker is consistently able to average more than a goal per game.
Milan must figure out a way to contain Barcelona's widespread attack to at least give themselves a chance to pull off the upset. The first leg is crucial because the last thing they need is to head to Camp Nou with a deficit to overcome.
What will be the result of the first leg?
The biggest key is keeping the possession battle close. When these two clubs faced off in the quarterfinals last season, Barca had over 60 percent possession in both legs and advanced with a 3-1 victory at home after a scoreless opener.
Milan needs to get that number closer to even to stand a chance. It starts in the midfield with Massimo Ambrosini and will carry throughout the lineup. The Rossoneri must have a lot of steady buildups and extended periods of time on the ball.
They can't afford to fall into a defensive shell and hope for counterattacking chances to bail them out. That would play right into Barca's hands. Of course, Barcelona's La Liga opponents will attest that it's a task much easier said than done.
Milan does have enough talent to keep both legs of the matchup close. The Rossoneri will need Christian Abbiati to stand on his head between the pipes and can't afford to squander the chances they do create, but they do have an outside chance at the upset.
That said, Barcelona owns the edge in just about every area and should be able to wear down Milan with constant pressure. Look for them to earn a narrow victory on Wednesday to put themselves in prime position heading into the second leg.
Barcelona 2, AC Milan 1