Barcelona vs. AC Milan: Neymar, Lionel Messi and the Most Likely Match-Winners

Greg Johnson@gregianjohnsonSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 5, 2013

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan #45 and Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona compete for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between AC Milan and Barcelona at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

A match between Barcelona and AC Milan should be one of the grandest spectacles in European football but unfortunately times are changing and Milan are struggling to keep up.

Massimiliano Allegri's team are 19 points behind Serie A leaders Roma and 16 points adrift of the other early pace setters in the Champions League spots with pressure growing around the manager's future.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 30:  Head coach AC Milan Massimiliano Allegri and Kaka #22 during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at San Siro Stadium on October 30, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The return of Kaka has only added to a growing sense that the club have become trapped in a footballing time warp.

Stars are leaving, spending is falling and the level of mediocrity within the squad continues to rise. Based on their current complacency they may struggle to respond to the threats and opportunities brought about by the new era of super club elitism.

Fortunately, in the short-term the club's chances of progressing into the knockout stages of this year's Champions League look relatively secure.

Ajax or Celtic could still mount a late challenge to potentially undermine the Rossoneri and dump them into the Europa League but Milan remain in the driving seat for now.

Even a draw against Barcelona could be enough for Allegri to see off any such challenge before it's truly begun, but snatching points at the Camp Nou won't be easy.

VIGO, SPAIN - OCTOBER 29:  FC Barcelona playes embraces themselves after their warming up prior to start the La Liga match between RC Celta de Vigo and FC Barcelona at Estadio Balaidos on October 29, 2013 in Vigo, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/G
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

After all, Barcelona would all but guarantee themselves a first-place finish in Group H should they beat a Milan side who have not recorded a win since the two teams drew 1-1 at the San Siro a fortnight ago.

In that time Gerardo Martino's men have secured three victories and will be seeking to turn their latest Champions League night into the Blaugrana's 22nd straight home win.

Having helped his team to shrug off the suffocating orthodoxy of tiki-taka's most puritanical excesses, the Argentinian has watered down the ideology into a more practical dosage.

Now, Barcelona's players are back to playing with a sense of freedom on their own terms, and that makes them clear favourites to dismantle a stuttering and underpowered Milan side.

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 20:  Stephan El Shaarawy of AC Milan looks on during the UEFA Champions League Play-off First Leg match between PSV Eindhoven and AC Milan at PSV Stadion on August 20, 2013 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtar
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In terms of injuries, the visitors will arrive in Catalonia without Stephan El Shaarawy and Giampaolo Pazzini while Barcelona will miss Jordi Alba who has been sidelined due to a hamstring problem.

The Spaniard joins Jonathan Dos Santos, Ibrahim Afellay and Isaac Cuenca on the club's injury list, although the left-back is the only first teamer currently out of action.

There are still plenty of match-winners available to both sides who will be looking to make their marks and ensure their club can secure safe passage into the last 16 of the Champions League.

Here are four key players that will likely decide everything at the Camp Nou.



BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 26:  Neymar of FC Barcelona (R) is tackled by Raphael Varane of Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on October 26, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/
Denis Doyle/Getty Images


Even before European audiences became able to watch Neymar on a regular basis his abilities as a trickster were well known to even the most provincial of football fans.

In the Barcelonian Derby against Espanyol at the weekend the Brazilian was the player who made the difference, assisting Alexis Sanchez who scored a tap-in from a Neymar pass that nutmegged two defenders on its way to the Chilean.

He also attempted to better Pele's famous yet flawed dummy around a goalkeeper from the 1970 World Cup. Unfortunately for Neymar he was taken out by Kiko Casilla who somehow escaped sanction.

Regardless, the Brazilian's form of late saw him produce the goal and assist that beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the most recent Clasico, and he has played a key role in Barcelona's domination of La Liga so far this year.

In fact, his rather tepid display against Milan in the 1-1 draw at the San Siro last month has proved to be something of an anomaly and Neymar will be itching to make a bigger impact against the Italians at Camp Nou.


BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 01:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the warm up prior to the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on November 1, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Lionel Messi

The Argentinian boasts a record of 12 goals in 12 games in all competitions this season but already there's talk of the diminutive genius somehow being out of form having not scored in his last three games.

Considering just how much his teammates came to rely on Messi last year, to the point where they looked lost unless he was scoring goals, pulling the strings and generally taking responsibility for Barcelona's season, it's a positive that Barcelona are winning through other means.

Messi's last goal came against Milan in their previous Group H draw, and while it's heartening to see teammates such as Alexis and Neymar step up to share the load for winning games, the Argentine will be looking to get back in amongst the goals against Allegri's men.


MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 02:  Mario Balotelli (C) of AC Milan defendes his team mate Mbaye Niang from Norberto Murara Neto (R) of  ACF Fiorentina during the Serie A match between AC Milan and ACF Fiorentina at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on November 2, 2013 in
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Mario Balotelli

If Messi is currently playing through a quiet patch then Milan's tempestuous striker must be completely off the boil.

Balotelli has not scored a goal since early October when his team drew 1-1 with Ajax in Amsterdam, and he was ineffectual when coming off the bench against Barcelona later that month.

His season has been disrupted by injury and suspension however, and considering how the former Manchester City and Inter prodigy usually reacts to adversity, he may just come to life at the Camp Nou to offer Milan the attacking outlet they vitally need against their hosts.

With El Shaarawy sidelined, Balotelli is his team's best option up front and could be the man to make a difference should he find himself on the end of a decisive breakaway to threaten Victor Valdes and his defence.



BERGAMO, ITALY - OCTOBER 29:  Riccardo Montolivo of AC Milan (C) in action during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at San Siro Stadium on October 30, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Riccardo Montolivo

Transitions will be vital for Milan and the responsibility to find the right pass to open Barcelona up for a counter will fall onto Montolivo who must keep his composure at the heart of the Milanese midfield.

Against Barcelona, the first ball after gaining possession back from the Blaugrana is vital considering how compact they often become when pressing and the space available behind their defence.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Riccardo Montolivo of AC Milan #18 and Neymar of FC Barcelona compete for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between AC Milan and Barcelona at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (P
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Should he receive the ball with a chance to launch a counter, Montolivo must look to cut out as many Barcelona players as possible with his first ball for Milan to make the most of any opportunities to come back at their hosts.

Attempting to retain possession and out pass Barcelona will only end in one result, which means that ensuring Balotelli and Milan's other primary goalscorers are fed with good service as quickly and directly as possible is key.

Due to his importance in ensuring that the first ball forwards is always the best option, Montolivo could well prove to be the all-important match-winner should the Italians somehow find a way to parry Barcelona's pressure.