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Champions League: How AC Milan Will Line Up Against Atletico Madrid

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 19:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan clashes with Diego Costa of Club Atletico de Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on February 19, 2014 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

The game against Udinese did not seem to mean much to AC Milan. Kaka and Nigel de Jong did not even play, and Adel Taarabt got just a few minutes. Milan stand eight points out of the Europa League, and right now it doesn’t matter.

What’s worse, Juventus could give away half of their points (72) and still lead Milan in the standings.

All hope hinges on the contest in Madrid, where Milan have to score to overturn the 1-0 defeat to Atletico suffered in the first leg of the Champions League tie.

This game itself is not only worth €8 million, as per La Gazzetta dello Sport; it is the pride of Milan at stake, a chance to reclaim something in a season of losses. Giampaolo Pazzini told the Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia) that it is “the game of the season,” and CEO Adriano Galliani even plans to get some advice from Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, whose side beat Atletico in the Copa del Rey.

Except Milan need goals, and they don’t make enough of them. They have scored just 12 goals in 11 games under Clarence Seedorf. The chances are there, and it’s not as if they’re not trying. Milan have hit the crossbar and missed the net entirely. Other times the goalkeepers were just too good (they couldn't beat a 17-year-old in net on Saturday, but Simone Scuffet was playing well ahead of himself, diving like a veteran).

Milan have had 64 shots over the past four matches and scored only twice—both goals coming in the same game.

This part of the competition is usually impassable for Milan; They have faltered in the Round of 16 four of out five times since winning the Champions League in 2007.

So maybe that’s why Seedorf decided to rest his starters in Udine. Seven players in the lineup changed from the weekend, as per La Gazzetta. Some were injured—Andrea Poli trained with the group after suffering a head injury, and de Jong wasn’t even a part of the squad.

The goal scored by Antonio Di Natale in the 1-0 loss to Udinese was a failure in concentration and defence. Several times Udinese hit Milan on the counter, and the Rossoneri had neither the pace nor the positioning to thwart the sudden attack. It could happen again on Tuesday if Milan don’t pay attention. They will try for the goal, and they have to make sure they don’t leave gaps behind.

Paolo Giovannini/Associated Press

Maybe Milan could take a few notes from the friendly between Italy and Spain last week. Diego Costa, the striker of note, failed to do anything in his debut with the national team, and it was Gabriel Paletta, the defender for Parma, that largely shut down the Spanish international.

Paletta constantly ran with Costa, who couldn’t free himself of the Italian. 

Adil Rami is a mobile defender, and he has to do a better job marking. He lost Costa in the box when the striker scored the winner in the first leg. Rami should start with Daniele Bonera or Cristián Zapata while, on the flanks, Mattia De Sciglio and Urby Emanuelson have to deliver the ball into the box frequently and accurately. Neither of them is capable of crossing with distinction, and often the ball ends up wide or out of bounds completely. 

In midfield lies the biggest battle, where Koke and Mario Suárez do much of the running for Atletico and contribute all over the pitch. Atletico Madrid battered Milan the last time they played, sending De Sciglio and Balotelli out of action, and it is the only way Atletico know how to play under Diego Simeone.

They are fourth in tackles per game (24.7) among the teams from the top five European leagues, as per WhoScored.com, and they will hunt down any ball.

“We need to shut out any space for them,” Simeone said of Milan (h/t Football Italia) on Monday. “They are a team with offensive drive and if we do not restrain them then it will be a game of suffering.”

Either Sulley Muntari or Michael Essien will cover for Riccardo Montolivo, who is still suspended in the Champions League. It is therefore the task of Taarabt and Kaka to generate much of the creativity in midfield, where Seedorf will have to deploy a duo of destroyers.

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 19:  Adel Taarabt (R) of AC Milan is challenged by Diego Godin (L) of Club Atletico de Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on February 19,
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Since his move to Milan, Taarabt has shown a surprising desire to track back, tackle and win the ball in the centre of the pitch and in his own zone. Against Atletico he supplied four key passes, according to WhoScored.com, and the first could have led to an opening goal if not for the crossbar.

Briefly on the pitch together at the weekend, Pazzini and Mario Balotelli are a partnership in the making. They have scored eight goals in 299 minutes together. Against Udinese, Balotelli was the set-up man, and Pazzini, who was largely unlucky, often ran onto one of the passes from his partner.

Nice to see Pazzini and Balotelli play together, this is likely a dress rehearsal for Champions League match

— David Amoyal (@DavidAmoyal) March 8, 2014

Too often Balotelli is the target. With Pazzini in front, Balotelli has the freedom to do his own thing, and Milan can play with another dimension. Whether the two play together in Madrid is the biggest question. Poli could start behind Balotelli, and maybe Balotelli isn’t fit enough to play from the start. He suffered a shoulder injury from a collision with Diego Costa a couple of weeks ago.

The one thing that Milan need is a goal. It seems that simple, but it isn’t. Not for this team.

Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Christian Abbiati; Urby Emanuelson, Adil Rami, Daniele Bonera, Mattia De Sciglio; Nigel de Jong, Michael Essien; Adel Taarabt, Kaka, Andrea Poli; Mario Balotelli

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