AC Milan welcome Genoa to the San Siro on Sunday with the aim of closing the gap between themselves and Serie A's top three.
While Italy's top four face off against each other—Juventus host Napoli; Inter travel to Fiorentina—Milan have an excellent chance to pick up three points against a Genoa side who are in desperate form and edging closer towards the relegation zone.
The Rossoneri's recent memories of this particular fixture are startlingly bad. They lost at home to the Grifone for the first time since 1958 last season, with that defeat part of a three-match losing streak.
However, Genoa are not what they were.
Gian Piero Gasperini's side have been stripped of their major assets over the last 18 months with their finest prospects—Stefano Sturaro and Rolando Mandragora—joining Juventus, their most creative players—Diego Perotti and Iago Falque—joining Roma, and important first-teamers—Luca Antonelli, Andrea Bertolacci and Juraj Kucka—arriving at Milan.
The sale of such a prodigious amount of talent has left behind a husk of a team struggling to keep their head above the waters of Serie A's bottom three. To make matters worse, their form is terrible; Genoa haven't won in four and they haven't scored in three.
Unfortunately for them, Milan will be in no mood for niceties this weekend.
With Inter and Fiorentina playing one another, it is guaranteed that one, or perhaps both, will drop points, opening up the possibility for Sinisa Mihajlovic's men to reduce the distance between them and a Champions League spot.
The top three was Milan's objective at the start of this season, and it's coming into clearer view with every passing week. The Rossoneri are unbeaten in six, and—despite a small blip with a 1-1 home draw with Udinese last weekend—they appear much stronger than they did a matter of months ago.
Even club icon Franco Baresi is pleased with what he's seeing, telling reporters at a Fondazione Milan event (h/t Football Italia):
The team plays well now and has its own identity. It’s a shame they dropped two points against Udinese on Sunday, but must always target important objectives. For Sunday it’s important to get everyone back in shape, because they cannot drop any more points.
If Milan do win on Sunday morning, they will go three points behind Fiorentina and two behind Inter, putting additional pressure on their rivals ahead of their meeting later that day. It's an opportunity the Rossoneri simply must not pass up.
Date: Sunday, 14 February
Time: 11:30 a.m. GMT (6:30 a.m. ET)
Venue: San Siro, Milan, Italy
TV Info: BT Sport Europe (UK)
Live Stream: Bet365.com
Milan 1-1 Udinese
Palermo 0-2 Milan
Milan 3-0 Inter
Alessandria 0-1 Milan (Coppa Italia)
Empoli 2-2 Milan
Genoa 0-0 Lazio
Juventus 1-0 Genoa
Genoa 0-0 Fiorentina
Verona 1-1 Genoa
Genoa 4-0 Palermo
Team News and Predicted Lineups
One of Milan's major issues in last weekend's disappointing draw with Udinese was dealing with Giacomo Bonaventura's absence. The lithe creator was out injured, forcing Mihajlovic to re-structure his midfield four.
The Serbian coach pushed Juraj Kucka out to the left, a move that categorically did not work. Fortunately, this will not be a concern for the clash with Genoa; Bonaventura is back to fitness, while Kucka is out due to a thigh problem.
Rossoneri left-back Antonelli is happy at the prospect of once again doubling up with his fellow Italy international down the left side, telling Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia): "It's easy to play alongside Bonaventura. He's a great player. When we're in trouble, he's able to turn things around for us."
With Kucka absent, Mihajlovic will no doubt continue with a central midfield partnership of Riccardo Montolivo and Bertolacci, though this combination has proved rather ineffective at times this season.
Both players are technically gifted but lack Kucka's dynamism and ball-winning qualities, something that could have been useful against a Genoa side that—at their best—like to play high-tempo football.
One player who could make a difference for Milan is Mario Balotelli. The 25-year-old has blown more cold than hot since returning from a long spell on the sidelines, but Premium Sport (h/t Football Italia) suggest that he will start against Genoa as "Fellow strikers M'Baye Niang and Luiz Adriano are suffering injury trouble."
In recent weeks, it has been reported that Balotelli will not stay at San Siro beyond the end of this season and the expiry of his loan deal, with Tuttosport (h/t Football Italia) hinting that Genoa striker Leonardo Pavoletti could replace him.
The 27-year-old centre-forward has shown himself to be an aerial threat and a good finisher this season, with his goals-per-game ratio one of the best in Serie A, per Squawka.com. However, he will miss this weekend's game through injury.
Gasperini will also be without cultured defender Cristian Ansaldi and dogged midfield battler Tomas Rincon for his team's trip to Milan, meaning Genoa's starting lineup at the San Siro will be devoid of several regular starters. They are, however, more about the tactics than individuals.
Genoa's 3-4-3 formation creates plenty of angles to aid their possession game, and with their intense man-marking approach, they can be a difficult team to play against, something Milan know only too well, having lost 1-0 at the Marassi earlier this season.
Milan (4-4-2): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Ignazio Abate, Alex, Alessio Romagnoli, Luca Antonelli; Keisuke Honda, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Bertolacci, Giacomo Bonaventura; Mario Balotelli, Carlos Bacca
Unavailable: Philippe Mexes, Rodrigo Ely and Diego Lopez (to be evaluated before the game), Juraj Kucka (injured).
Genoa (3-4-1-2): Mattia Perin; Ezequiel Munoz, Nicolas Burdisso, Armando Izzo; Riccardo Fiamozzi, Luca Rigoni, Blerim Dzemaili, Gabriel Silva; Panagiotis Tachtsidis; Alessio Cerci, Tim Matavz
Unavailable: Leonardo Pavoletti and Cristian Ansaldi (injured), Tomas Rincon (suspended).
Players to Watch
Bonaventura has been Milan's most important creative influence this season, and Mihajlovic will be delighted to have him back in the side to help prise open Genoa's defence.
His presence will be particularly important as, while the Grifone haven't scored many of late, they also have only let in two goals in their last six league games.
It wasn't so long ago that Alessio Cerci lined up on the opposite wing to Bonaventura, but this weekend he will line up against him. The winger joined Genoa after a failed spell at Milan in which he became a target of fan frustrations.
He will be motivated to prove them wrong on his first return to San Siro since walking through the Milanello exit doors.
Gianluigi Buffon recently announced that he is to hang up his gloves in 2018, per Football Italia. To many countries, the loss of such a legendary figure would leave them panicking; however, Italy have some exceptional young goalkeepers vying to replace him.
Two of those 'keepers will be on show at San Siro on Sunday in Milan's 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma and Genoa's 23-year-old Mattia Perin.
While not a direct on-pitch battle, these two players are crucial to their teams. They are also potentially direct rivals at national team level in the near future and thus will probably want to outdo one another this weekend.
All odds kindly provided by Odds Shark.