Champions League football returns to Camp Nou tomorrow as Barça take on AC Milan in the battle for first place in Group H (Wednesday 8.45 pm). Tata Martino’s men go into the match in a strong position, knowing that a victory will mean qualification to the last 16 while almost guaranteeing top spot and even a draw would still leave Barça in pole position to win the group.
Barça are clear favourites to win the game and with Milan going through a crisis of form, few give the Italians much hope at Camp Nou. Since the two teams drew 1-1 at the San Siro two weeks ago, Max Allegri’s men have managed just one point in Serie A from a home draw with Lazio while they lost 3-2 at Parma and 0-2 at home to Fiorentina on Saturday. The seven-times champions of Europe have taken just 12 points from 11 games in the Italian league which leaves them a massive 19 points behind leaders Roma.
If things don’t improve soon Allegri may be out of a job by Christmas. The difficulty of his task tomorrow is demonstrated by the fact that Milan haven’t won in their last five Champions League games in Barcelona. The Italians last win at Camp Nou came in the group stage in 2000 when goals from Coco and Bierhoff earned a 0-2 victory for the visitors. Since then, in 2004 Eto’o and Ronaldinho scored in a 2-1 Barça win in the group stage, then in 2006 a goalless draw in the semi-final 2nd leg proved enough to send Barça through to the final against Arsenal. Milan managed another draw (2-2) in the group stage of the 2011/12 season but then when the teams met again in the quarter-finals two penalties from Leo Messi and a goal from Andres Iniesta gave Barça a 3-1 win and classification for the semis. The teams last met in March last season’s last 16 when Barça famously overturned a 2-0 deficit from the first leg with a 4-0 victory at Camp Nou.
Despite the statistics Milan should never be underestimated. They will be boosted by the probable return in goal of the veteran Christian Abbiati, while ageing stars such as Kaká and Robinho demonstrated in the first leg that when the stage is right they are still players to be reckoned with. Mario Balotelli is another who seems to perform better in big games and after returning from injury as a substitute in the first leg he will be fit to start at Camp Nou. Balotelli’s form has been disappointing this season and he has picked up more yellow cards (five) than goals (three); however, despite his inconsistency, Super Mario has demonstrated enough times in the past that he has the strength and ability to trouble any defence.
Barça have doubts over the fitness of Piqué and Adriano. The two defenders underwent specific programs yesterday rather than training with the group though the local press seems optimistic that both players will be ready to play though they may both begin on the bench. The squad will train again this evening before Tata Martino decides on his list for the game.
With Jordi Alba still out injured, the problems of Piqué and Adriano only go to emphasise the apparent fragility of our defenders. Puyol and Mascherano have also both missed games through injury and it seems as if it is always our back line that suffers these problems which might indicate that we really should have signed another defender in the summer. However, a look at our recent record shows we have only conceded four goals in the last eleven games which demonstrates the effectiveness of Martino’s methods. It’s a slightly strange sensation as neither Piqué nor Mascherano, considered the first-choice centre-backs, is in his best moment, though acknowledgement must go to Victor Valdés who has begun the season in excellent form while Dani Alves deserves credit for improved performances defensively.
Johnathan dos Santos underwent surgery on the cruciate ligaments of his right knee today following his injury last week in training. The operation was successful but Dos Santos now faces a six-month recovery period which makes it unlikely he will play again this season. Let’s hope the team can put on a good show tomorrow and dedicate a victory to the youngster.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Montoya; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; De Jong, Montolivo, Muntari; Robinho, Balotelli, Kaká.
Prediction: Barça 2 Milan 0
Date: Wednesday 6 November 2013. Kick off 8.45 pm local time.