It should have been a meeting of footballing giants; the two most successful teams in the history of club football's premier tournament in a head to head battle for top spot in their group. Looking at the player names on paper, and one still gets a surge of anticipation. Ronaldinho; Pato; Pirlo; Ronaldo; Kaka; Benzema. The trouble is, football is not played on paper and the marquee names in lining up in red and black on Wednesday night are seemingly past their sell by date, whilst the merengues stars are in their prime. What might once have been anticipated as a close exciting battle many pundits are now predicting could turn into a stroll for the team in white.
It was not always thus, however. Real may be the most storied team in the history of the competition, but in recent years it is Milan who have enjoyed the most success of any team, winning it twice and losing the epic final against Liverpool in recent seasons. How, then, can a team who were the winners only three seasons ago suddenly find themselves such rank outsiders in a competition that Adriano Galliani once called "our own"?
The answer of course is simple - money, or rather a lack of it. Whilst Florentino Perez has showered Real Madrid with cash to bring in the world's best players (or more accurately built up massive debt to do so), Milan's once generous owner, Silvio Berlusconi, has pulled the purse-strings tight, using Kaka's massive transfer fee to balance the books rather than spend it on any new stars. Though the appointment of Leonardo as manager was dressed up as an attempt to reinvigorate the club and follow the example of Guardiola at Barcelona, it doesn't take a football genius to see this is not the true reason. Already employed in another capacity by the club, Leonardo was the cheap option; he even had to obtain a special exemption from the authorities to pass him as a manager, so inexperienced was he.
The same applies to the squad - arguably Milan's best 'new' player this season is in fact a resurgent Alessandro Nesta, recovered finally from his injury nightmare. In a poor start to the season, including a defeat at home in the last round of the Champions League to unfancied Zurich, he and his central defensive partner Thiago Silva (another 'new' player actually signed last January) have been a sole bright spot for the rossoneri. The club's only major investment, Klass Jan Huntelaar, ironically brought in from Real Madrid, has been a failure so far.
The result is that a Milan team that many felt was already too old (despite their Champions League triumph in 2007) now looks positively decrepit, whilst Real Madrid have an embarrassment of riches in picking their midfield and attack. Pundits making their predictions will probably spend more time deciding exactly which Real players will score rather than who will win the match.
And yet . . . football is a funny old game, as they say. Milan's best performance of the season by far came in their first Champions League game when they came away from Marseille with a victory. Could these old warriors, who tend to save their best for the big matches, defy the odds again? Stranger things have happened. . .