Barcelona vs. AC Milan Preview: 5 Keys to the Second Leg at the Camp Nou
Barcelona have a huge task ahead of them at the Camp Nou Tuesday night as they attempt to overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit against AC Milan.
The visitors will set out to defend their lead, but should they grab a critical away goal on the counter, Barcelona would have to hit back with four in order to keep their Champions League campaign alive.
Comebacks of similar magnitude are far from unheard of, and Milan in particular are no stranger to suffering shock defeats, but no team has ever overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit without the benefit of an away goal.
And with their confidence near a five-year low following three losses in five matches, the odds are stacked against the Blaugrana. But if they can find their rhythm early in the match and the get the Camp Nou faithful behind them, the tie is yet within their reach.
Let’s look at five critical areas that will determine how the second leg, and the tie, will play out.
The First 15 Minutes
It may a bit cliche to say that the opening of a second leg is of critical importance, especially when one team is trying to overturn a significant deficit.
More so than ever, this Barcelona team will need a confidence boost as they recover from a devastating fortnight of football that has sent their season nearly into free-fall. They may be significant underdogs entering the second leg, but if they can score an early goal or even just apply significant early pressure to get the crowd behind them, their mission will immediately be much more achievable.
Remember Milan's near collapse at the Emirates last year after a 4-0 home win in the first leg?
On the other hand, if they struggle in the first quarter-hour, their confidence will continue to wane as Milan’s grows, and the odds will quickly transform from solidly against them to overwhelmingly so.
Unfortunately, this year’s squad doesn’t quite have the same air of invincibility about it—at least not at the moment—and managing the game will be of crucial importance right from the start.
Allegri's Tactical Calculation
Massimiliano Allegri knows that if he can keep things tight at the back and keep Barca out of the Milan net, then the tie is his.
But he will also be wary of the fact that a single goal for the Blaugrana could turn the tie on its head, while a goal for his side could effectively end it.
He faces a tactical quandary: How much should Milan push forward for the supremely valuable away goal, potentially leaving themselves open for exploitation by Barcelona?
His team may have played this balance to perfection in the first leg, but Allegri’s men may need a bit of luck to see the second leg go as smoothly as the first.
If they decide to pack it in and defend their lead at all costs, Milan risk conceding and putting themselves under more pressure. Should they push forward, they may be more likely to concede, but could also frustrate Barcelona’s possession, dictate the pace of the match and ultimately put the tie out of reach.
Either way, their tactics could play a critical role and in determining the pace and tenor of the match.
Milan's Defensive Shape
Even more important than their will to go forward will be Milan's defensive shape.
In the first leg, Milan always had a designated first defender pressure the ball inside their half, while the rest of the team dropped into a tightly packed defensive unit that cut off passing lanes and frustrated the normally fluid Barcelona attack.
Every player was aware of his overall role in the defensive posture, and of his immediate role in any moment—and they each had the discipline and awareness to follow through on their plan.
Teams typically find it more difficult to stick with said plans at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona will find it easier to stretch and strain and to wear down defending teams, both mentally and physically.
Add to their normal home-field advantage the fact that the Camp Nou pitch will be in vastly superior shape to the stubbly mess the Blaugrana were forced to play on in the first leg at the San Siro.
Barcelona should put Milan under much more pressure than they were able to three weeks ago; will Milan succeed in keeping their shape?
Barcelona's Attacking Movement
Perhaps the most important factor in the tie will be whether Barcelona can regain their lost luster in the attacking third and get some creative, incisive movement ahead of the ball.
Tiki-taka is far from dead, but Barcelona have to rediscover and regain what has made them, over the past five seasons, the team to beat in all of Europe.
I expect Alexis Sanchez to start in the attack after an impressive audition at the weekend against Deportivo, though many Cules would understandably rather see the tried-and-tested big-game presence of David Villa. Cesc Fabregas, woeful against Milan in the first leg and lukewarm at best in subsequent performances, should find himself on the bench.
Pedro has been ever-present in the starting XI despite recent shaky performances as well. Perhaps Vilanova and Roura have an ace up their sleeve? One can dream.
Messi: Can He Step Up?
After all is said and done, the tie could turn on an individual performance or a single moment of brilliance. And one man is in the best position to supply it. At least, that's what Barcelona supporters will be hoping for.
Messi has been quiet in recent blockbusters, most notably the first leg against Milan and the second leg of the Copa del Rey vs. Madrid. Can he find the inspiration that has led him to take over so many crucial matches in the past, and carry the Blaugrana to victory? Or will he fade into the background in the wake of Milan's physical defensive style?
Will it be Chelsea 2012, where Messi looked positively lost after missing his crucial penalty, or Madrid 2011, where Messi single-handedly won the tie with two brilliant goals at the Bernabeu?
Only time will tell.