Milan against Barça in the Champions League. With a total of eleven titles of Europe’s top trophy between them there can be few contests on the world stage that equal the historic rivalry of these two great clubs. Fabio Capello’s Milan famously defeated Johan Cruyff’s dream team 4-0 in the 1994 final and since then the sides have faced each other on no fewer than ten occasions with a balance of four wins for Barça and two for Milan and four draws.
Last season the teams met both in the group stage and again in quarter-finals. The first group stage match ended in a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou after Thiago Silva headed in a last minute equalizer for Milan and this was followed by Barça’s impressive 2-3 victory in the San Siro with Pep Guardiola bravely opting for a defence of three. The first leg of the quarter finals ended in an intense 0-0 draw in Italy and then Barça won the return 3-1 with two goals from Leo Messi and a third from Andrés Iniesta.
Milan have made massive changes since last season with a big clear out of the older players. Nesta, Seedorf, Inzaghi, Oddo, Zambrotta, Van Bommel, Maxi Lopez and Seedorf have either retired or moved on but the biggest loss for the Rossoneri is the sale of star players Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Pato. Coach Massimiliano Allegri recognised the need for new and younger blood and brought in a number of signings including Cristian Zapata, Kevin Constant, Nigel de Jong, Riccardo Montolivo, Sulley Muntari, Bakaye Traoré, M’Baye Niang, Giampaolo Pazzini and our old friend Bojan Krkic.
With so many new faces perhaps it is normal that Milan struggled to adapt during the first months of the season. However, there has been a recent improvement and in their seven games so far in 2013 they have won five and drawn two, moving up to fourth place in Serie A although they are still 11 points behind leaders Juventus. The recent winter signing of Mario Balotelli from Manchester City has made a big impact with the flamboyant striker scoring four in his first three games.
Fortunately for Barça, Balotelli is ineligible to play for Milan in this season’s tournament though Allegri has plenty of options available in his oversized squad. It’s a tough job trying to anticipate Allegri’s team selection though I imagine he will play a 4-3-1-2, similar to that used last season, with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing behind two strikers. In goal there is still the Mussolini-loving Christian Abbiati while in defence it could Abate, Zapata, Mexes and Constant though there is a strong case for De Sciglio to take one of the full back positions. For the midfield three we could see Flamini, Ambrosini and Traoré though Montolivo and Nocerino are also in contentention, while in front of Boateng, star player Stephan El-Shaarawy seems to have overcome a knee injury and should lead the attack with either Pazzini, the impressive 18-year old Niang or Bojan as his partner.
Barça have named twenty players for the trip to Milan with the main absences being Adriano and David Villa who haven’t recovered in time. The good news is that Xavi is fit again and he should return to the midfield. At this point of the season, with a twelve-point lead in La Liga and a Copa del Rey semi-final next week, everything is still on for a possible treble. The main concerns are for a defence that has failed to keep a clean sheet in the last nine games. In the knock out competitions we could be made to pay very highly for any slip-up and our defenders will need to show maximum concentration to avoid any mistakes.
Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura will again have to decide on where best to play Andrés Iniesta. While there seems little doubt that his best position is in midfield, by playing him on the left wing there is room for Fabregas who has been so important to this season’s team. The other available options for the left wing are Alexis and Tello, but Alexis’s poor finishing recently makes him a risky option in such an important game while Tello still seems a better option as a substitute.
Barça go into the tie as clear favourites though there is no room for complacency. We were expected to beat Chelsea in last season’s semi-final but a lot can go wrong in football over 180 minutes and despite doubts about the strength of the current Milan team there is certainly potential for the Italians to cause an upset. Their name and history command respect, we should not be taking this game lightly.
Barça’s 20-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartrá, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Alexis, Tello.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant; Flamini, Ambrosini, Traoré; Boateng; El-Shaarawy, Pazzini.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Milan 2 Barça 2
Date: Wednesday 20 February 2013. Kick off 8.45 pm local time.