One massive night of Champions League football awaits Camp Nou as Barça try to overcome AC Milan’s 2-0 advantage taken from the first leg at the San Siro three weeks ago. Xavi Hernandez looks set to return to Barça’s midfield though there has been much debate about which starting XI should be used to face a Milan team that is unbeaten in Serie A in 2013.
Milan arrive without Pazzini who left Puyol with a splitting headache after the first leg and reports suggest that Max Allegri will play a 4-5-1 system with just Stephan El-Shaawary as a lone forward. Antonio Nocerino could return to bolster the midfield while Kevin-Prince Boateng could be asked to play a deeper role. Nocerino, Boateng and Ambrosini were all rested for Milan’s 0-2 win at Genoa on Friday when the Rossoneri demonstrated their strength in defence, holding out with ten men for the last twenty five minutes after Kevin Constant was sent off.
Last season the two sides met at the quarter-final stage and after a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Italy, Barça went through with a 3-1 win at Camp Nou. For that game Pep Guardiola began with a 3-4-3 formation and I have to admit that before Barça’s 2-0 win over Deportivo on Saturday I had been seduced by the idea of starting against Milan again with a defence of three. We may not have used the 3-4-3 formation much this season but last season we used it a lot and our players should be able to adapt. The 3-4-3 formation is especially suited to Cesc Fabregas and I saw us playing with two wide forwards, Messi and Cesc combining through the middle, with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets making up the midfield.
However, Fabregas’s recent run of form has made me doubt. The fact that he played with an injury against Milan and Madrid may be some excuse for his below-par performances, but against Depor he was again off the pace, and following his press conference last Thursday when he spoke of the team’s situation and felt the need to defend himself, I get the impression that he is feeling the pressure. For this reason I have gone back to the idea of a 4-3-3 with a midfield three of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta. The question then is: who should play up front with Leo Messi?
Alexis has suffered recently from a drop in confidence but his performance against Depor suggests he is at last recovering his form. I have never doubted his quality as a player and always felt his problems were in his head. He will be boosted by his goal on Saturday and I believe he should start against Milan.
The other forward position will then be a choice between Tello, David Villa and Pedro. Villa is the best finisher of the three but he is clearly not in his best moment. Tello was impressive in the first half against Depor and he is certainly the most direct at taking on his man. My only problem with Tello is his ability to last 90 minutes and on Saturday he was not so effective in the second half. I have not been too impressed with Pedro recently but he was rested on Saturday with the intention of having him at his best. I think he’ll get the other forward’s slot with Villa and Tello being used as subs for the last half hour depending on how the game is going.
It’s never going to be easy to break down a well organised Italian defence, however fancy our quick one-twos may be. Perhaps the best way to surprise them is to be first to any rebounds or half-clearances and for this we will need a constant intense pressing. Alexis and Pedro are probably the most insistent of our forwards in chasing down defenders, and I think Messi should be asked to increase his work in this aspect for this game. When we have the ball we need to keep it moving as quickly as possible, play less horizontally and try to get more balls into the danger zone.
The players will need to avoid getting too desperate as we have seen in recent years against Inter and Chelsea that sometimes the enormity of the occasion can get the better of them. As fans, whoever plays, we must have faith. They may not win everything but this group of players has achieved so much and proved itself on countless occasions. Here’s to another fantastic night to be remembered for years to come.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant; Nocerino, Montolivo, Boateng, Ambrosini, Muntari; El Shaarawy.
Prediction: Barça 3 Milan 0 (after extra time)
Date: Tuesday 12 March 2013. Kick off 8.45 pm local time.