It is no secret that AC Milan have endured one of their toughest seasons in recent memory, falling to the middle of the pack in Serie A and undergoing a coaching change midseason for the first time since Fatih Terim's ill-fated tenure in 2001.
Injuries to key performers like Stephan El Shaarawy have prevented the Rossoneri from fielding their first choice starting XI all season and as such it is difficult to truly analyze the identity of the team.
Even so, one thing is abundantly clear. The team is in dire need of strengthening, especially on the back line where a porous defense has let Milan down time and again.
Despite their well-chronicled issues, the Rossoneri still managed to eke their way out of a challenging Champions League group alongside Barcelona. As one of the eight second-place finishers, Milan were always going to be one of the least-desired round of 16 matchups given their European pedigree.
While it is true that many of the players on the team right now were not around the last time Milan made legitimate waves in Europe, the ability of the underachieving side to get the results they needed merits respect from opponents and fans alike. In particular, the 3-0 win at Celtic was a classy performance in an extremely important and difficult situation.
Milan's opponents in the next round, Atletico Madrid, have quickly become one of the best stories of the 2013-2014 season. They are currently joint-first in Spain alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid, an incredibly impressive feat given their dearth of resources as compared to their two main rivals.
Atletico picked up 16 out of 18 possible points in the group stage and as such will not be intimidated by the San Siro crowd come Wednesday night. Indeed, manager Diego Simeone spent a memorable chunk of his career with Inter Milan, AC Milan's bitter crosstown rivals.
Recently, however, Atletico has hit a bit of a lull compared to their previously high-flying start to the season. Three consecutive losses have slightly dampened the mood of the club entering this difficult stretch of their season.
Granted, two of those losses came against Real Madrid, indisputably one of the very top sides in the world right now, yet the other loss to Almeria suggests that fatigue may be beginning to set in for the squad.
In spite all of this, Atletico remain an extremely dangerous proposition for Milan, but the Rossoneri have pulled off upsets at the San Siro on many an occasion. Last year, in the very same corresponding fixture, Milan defeated Barcelona 2-0.
Simeone's side have quickly developed a reputation as a high-energy attacking juggernaut, with Diego Costa and Koke in particular being scouted by many of the world's top clubs. Yet the recent slip, albeit brief, suggests that Milan may be facing Atletico at the right time.
Milan manager Clarence Seedorf will have to make do without Riccardo Montolivo, Keisuke Honda, Sulley Muntari, Robinho and El Shaarawy among others. But with Mario Balotelli available there is always the chance he will break through on the European stage.
It remains an extremely difficult task, but Milan have as good an opportunity as they will get to seize the initiative of the tie heading to the March 11 second leg in Madrid.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!