One of the most eagerly awaited games of the Champions League group stage takes place tomorrow night as AC Milan play hosts to holders FC Barcelona at the magnificent San Siro stadium. Pep Guardiola has 17 first team players available after Andrés Iniesta picked up a thigh strain in Saturday’s victory against Zaragoza, Adriano has not recovered in time from his hamstring injury and of course we will be without Dani Alves who is suspended. News today that Tito Vilanova has not made the trip due to an operation on his parotid glands (one of the salivary glands at the back of the mouth) is a big blow for us but hopefully it will serve as motivation for the players who will want to dedicate a victory to him. A win of course would guarantee Barça top spot in Group H while a draw would mean we would need to beat BATE Borisov at Camp Nou on December 6 to finish first. The fact that both teams have already qualified for the next round will hopefully lead to an open and attractive match like the 2-2 draw between the teams back in September at Camp Nou. When all is said and done the advantage for finishing top of the group may not be that important especially when teams like Manchester United and Manchester City could easily finish second in their groups.
However, as Football Club Barcelona we must always go out with the intention of attacking and winning, and a victory at the San Siro is not something we can get to enjoy very often. Milan are in fine form at home having won their last six home games in league and Champions League scoring 16 in the process while only conceding one. It may not quite match our remarkable thirty-love record but it is impressive all the same. There is no doubt that one of the major attractions for the game will be to see the outspoken Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing against his old club. Zlatan may have become a bit of a hate figure for some fans but in fairness I don’t think he’s such a terrible guy. Basically I think he is a bit immature and he has ended up with a ruthless agent who’s out to make as much money as possible from the player. The controversy surrounding his book is obviously a ploy aimed at raising sales but I imagine Zlatan is just happy to continue raking in the cash without giving a damn for what anybody says or thinks about him. Barça made the mistake of thinking they could tame him but Ibra is too much of a free spirit. He may have fallen out with Guardiola and not quite fitted in with our system especially after Messi moved to the middle but he is still one hell of a player who on his day can create goals out of nothing using a variety of methods.
Besides Ibrahimovic there is plenty more talent in the Milan squad. I particularly like Thiago Silva the central defender who scored Milan’s injury time equaliser at Camp Nou while Alexandre Pato is back from a six-week injury and looking dangerous in the twenty minutes he played in his comeback in Milan’s 0-0 draw at Fiorentina on Saturday. Clarence Seedorf is 37 and may have passed his best but he has so much talent and experience that he will no doubt have a big influence on the game, while Robinho will be very keen to impress against us should he get the chance to come on.
For Barça the loss of Iniesta is important but perhaps not quite as important as the loss of Alves. The last time Dani was unavailable was for the Villarreal match which was when Pep first revealed the 3-4-3 system as we’ve seen it this season. Despite the strength of our opponents I feel there is a pretty good case for playing the back three again tomorrow. Piqué should be used against Ibrahimovic while we could play Mascherano and Abidal to pick up Pato and cover. I had hoped this would mean we could play Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta as attacking midfielders behind a front three but Iniesta could easily be replaced by Thiago who would add some youthful energy. Pep could of course play the typical back four and Marc Bartrá and Johnathan dos Santos (and Oier and Cuenca) have been added to the squad to give more options at right back if we didn’t already have enough with Puyol, Maxwell and Mascherano. However, I insist that I’m tempted by the 3-4-3 and I think Pep might be as well. Imagine we go to Milan and win an open exciting match playing 3-4-3, it would not just be great for the game but would also give a few doubts to Mourinho as it would suggest we could also play the same way at the Bernabeu. I may well be wrong on the 3-4-3 but I feel I can be pretty sure when I say that I think it will be a cracking match. Enjoy!
Barça 21-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Puyol, Mascherano, Bartra, Dos Santos, Piqué, Fontás, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Cuenca, Villa.
Possible starting XIs:
AC Milan: Abbiate; Abate, Nesta, Thiago Silva, Antonini; Ambrosini, Nocerino, Seedorf, Alquilani; Pato, Ibrahimovic.
Barça: Valdes; Mascherano, Piqué, Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Villa.
My prediction: Milan 2 Barça 3