An intriguing fixture highlights the final pairing of games in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League, as Barcelona travel to the San Siro to face AC Milan. The Blaugrana topped the table in Group G, finishing three points clear of Celtic. Il Rossoneri finished second in Group C, four points adrift of Malaga.
Milan’s form has improved since the new year began, going undefeated in seven league fixtures. This run has pushed Milan up to third in Serie A, while building momentum and confidence going into European play.
Milan normally go with a 4-3-3 formation, but one wonders if manager Massimillano Allegri will use different tactics, since that formation is favoured by Barcelona. And no one on the planet plays the 4-3-3 better than the Catalan side.
Stephan El Shaarawy leads the club with 18 goals in all competitions and will cause problems for Barcelona by using his technique and deadly precision on set pieces. The Pharoah can be used either on the flank, or as a striker. Milan will be without the cup-tied Mario Balotelli. The former Manchester City striker was brought over on a transfer in January, and has paid immediate dividends, scoring 4 goals for Milan. He will be missed. Giampaolo Pazzini, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Robinho could see their way on the team sheet as well.
Riccardo Montolivo is the talismanic figure in the midfield. The Milan captain is a meticulous passer with an intelligent approach to the game. Antonio Nocerino is your classic Italian midfielder. Somewhat physical, very disciplined, with a knack of moving forward at the right time. Nigel De Jong is out for the season due to injury, which is a major blow to Milan’s midfield. Expect Massimo Ambrosini to be on the team sheet as the sitting midfielder.
The back four has shown improvement, after a rocky start to the season. There will be plenty of pressure on centre backs Philippe Mexes and Daniele Bonera. Both will be under constant stress from the swarming attack Barcelona brings. They will have to keep close tabs on Messi, who is adept at finding holes in the back. Expect Kevin Constant to start at left back. The Guinea International will have to be aware of the surging runs, Dani Alves produces on the flank. Mattia De Sciglio should start at right back.
Christian Abbiati will most likely start between the sticks for Milan. Abbiati’s form has improved as the season has progressed, but will need to step up his performance, if Milan are to see the quarterfinals.
What can be said about Barcelona that hasn’t been said already? They are still, the team to beat in Europe. Barca is 12 points clear of their nearest competition in La Liga, so Champions League is now their main focus.
Lionel Messi is simply sublime. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the arresting Argentine. Messi scored his 300th goal for Barcelona over the weekend, and he plans to add to his total against Milan. His 48 goals in all competitions is simply astounding. The big question is the health of David Villa. The oft-injured forward could miss Wednesday’s fixture with kidney stones. If Villa can’t go, manager Tito Vilanova could use either Pedro, Cristian Tello or Alexis up front.
The midfield should welcome back Xavi to the team sheet. The magician in the midfield has been out of the lineup with a hamstring knock. Xavi can do it all, and should be regarded as one of the best players in the world. Andres Iniesta is another majestic midfielder for Barcelona. Iniesta is a renowned passer who has goal-scoring instincts. Vilanova could also use Cesc Fabregas as an attacking midfielder. Sergio Busquests has found a home as a sitting midfielder.
The back goes through constant changes, but is adaptable to whatever Vilanova’s tactics are from game to game. Dani Alves is more of a winger, than a right back. His surging runs and brisk pace are difficult for midfielders to defend against. Jordi Alba can also push forward from his left back spot. Veterans Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique are sturdy centre backs. Javier Mascherano can also slide into the centre back spot if needed. Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya and Adriano Correia could all see time on the pitch, if defenders are needed.
Victor Valdes isn’t the best keeper in the world. But he is reliable and will come up with key saves. The team has confidence in Valdes and he usually responds.
While Milan’s form has improved in the last six weeks, they haven’t face anyone the calibre of Barcelona. Let us not forget Barcelona knocked out Milan in the quarterfinals last year. Milan will have to play a structured, strict style that will limit Barcelona’s chances. Easier said than done. If Milan have to switch from their regular 4-3-3 formation, it could take time to adapt. Barcelona is deadly when teams are forced to adapt to their game, that they can have this game won on tactics alone. Even if Milan hold Barcelona to a draw as San Siro, Barcelona should rip Milan apart at Nou Camp in a fortnight. Barcelona will go through to the quarterfinals.
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