The 2011/2012 Uefa Champions League campaign begins for Barça tomorrow with the visit of one of Europe’s historically great teams, AC Milan. The two teams are clear favourites to qualify from Group H but it is always much better to go through top of the group rather than second so it is vital we get off to a good start against the Italians. Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to Camp Nou for the first time and I imagine he will not receive a very friendly welcome. Despite forming part of the record-breaking 99-points-winning team of 2009/2010 and scoring the winner against Madrid, Ibrahimovic’s character was not appreciated and his childish criticism of Guardiola after leaving did little to endear him to culés. Fans tend to forget the good Ibra moments and instead recall his failure to break down Inter’s defence as the defining moment of his season with us. However, the thought of him playing against us tomorrow causes me some concern and I have to admit that deep down I recognize that on his day he is still a unique and very dangerous player.
Milan have only played one league game this season due to a player strike in Italy, and this makes it more difficult to see how they will play. In Friday’s 2-2 draw with Lazio they played with Abbiati in goal, Abate, Nesta, Thiago Silva and Antonini across the back, Gattuso Ambrosini, Aquilani Boateng in midfield with Cassano and Ibrahimović up front. Gattuso, like new signing Philip Mexes, is suspended which will probably mean a chance for Marco Van Bommel to remind us what we are missing, though Van Bommel will no doubt play the Gattuso role of trying to kick Iniesta and Messi as often as possible. Personally, I am hoping we get a chance to see Clarence Seedorf in Milan’s team. Seedorf may have played for Real Madrid and had some embarrassing underwear photos taken of him in his time, but he is one of the few players who has impressed time and again over a very long and successful career. Milan offered Seedorf a new contract this summer and if you are planning to use a player like Seedorf, albeit sparingly, then surely a visit to Camp Nou would be the type of game that you would want him for. The immensely talented Alexandre Pato is another player to watch out for who didn’t start against Lazio; if he doesn’t start in place of Cassano, expect to see him as Milan’s first substitute.
The biggest news for Barça should be that we see captain Carles Puyol appearing at least for some of the game. Having seen the game against Real Sociedad I have to say I hope we don’t see too much more of the Busquets-Fontás pairing which looks a little slow and clunky. Personally, until Piqué and Puyol are 100% I’d like to see a back four of Alves-Mascherano-Abidal-Adriano with Busquets back in the defensive midfield role. In the creative and forward positions I think Pep will go with Xavi-Iniesta, and Pedro-Messi-Villa; Cesc Fabregas has had a marvelous start to his renewed blaugrana career but I believe Guardiola will choose last season’s “fantastic five” to begin the defence of the trophy.
There has been a lot of talk about whether Barça will have the necessary hunger and desire for more success this season. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the strongest squad yet, however we saw signs in San Sebastian of a team going through the motions which got rudely awakened from its slumber by Real’s double-whammy. Last season we got caught out in similar fashion in the games at Betis and Arsenal and it just demonstrates how important it is for us to maintain that high level of concentration. This is the main challenge for us this season, tomorrow we should get a pretty good idea of how much desire the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta have for another Champions league trophy. The Guardiola team have let us down so rarely on the big occasions, I do not expect them to fail us tomorrow. I’m going for a win with Valdés keeping a clean sheet.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Abidal, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Nesta, Thiago Silva, Antonini;, Van Bommel Ambrosini, Aquilani Boateng; Pato, Ibrahimovic.
Barça 2 Milan 0