AC Milan versus Barcelona is one of European football’s marquee fixtures, it’s nights like these that football was invented for.
What a difference a few weeks makes. If you had told me before Christmas that AC Milan would be welcoming Barcelona to the San Siro for their last 16 Champions League encounter while riding high at third in Serie A, full of confidence and with realistic expectations of a result, I would have done what any other Milan supporter would have done – thrown my eyes to heaven, slightly shrugged my shoulders and made a sort of ‘eh’ sound whilst making like I’m trying to speak but the words simply won’t form in my mouth.
As it is though, we find ourselves in the unlikely position of welcoming the European Champions and eternal force for all that is good in football Barcelona to the Giuseppe Meazza in surprisingly rude health. Of course Mario Balotelli is cup-tied having already lined out for Manchester City in the competition but the change in energy about the team since his arrival is tangible, he has had something like a ‘Ibrahimovic’ effect, making everyone play better and with more confidence.
For all his outrageous talent, you can’t say that Balotelli ever had that effect in Manchester, the opposite was in fact true with the British Media ladling him a ‘bad apple’, whose unpredictability was a negative influence on the team. Not so, in Milan, however, for as soon as Italy’s prodigal son pulled on the famed red and black shirt, he looked a player transformed. With four goals in his three games with the club, Balotelli looks to have been a missing piece in the jigsaw of Allegri’s relatively callow team, just how the team will perform without him will be telling.
Barcelona, however, are rampant in La Liga and have named an all-star line up with only Villa the household name to miss the call up. Xavi has been given the ok to travel and will join team mates Messi and Iniesta when they land in Milan this evening and train at the San Siro.
Allegri is expected to keep faith with an attacking trident formation that yielded three points against Parma last weekend. Pazzini will most likely take Balotelli’s place, even though the striker has yet to play since the arrival of Balotelli he is Milan’s second most prolific goal-scorer, with 10 goals, behind El Sharaawy’s 15, and the most ‘like-for-like’ replacement. Kevin-Prince Boateng and El Sharaawy, will make up the wider points of the trident adding much needed steel in attack. Montolivo will provide the impetus in the no. 10 slot and much will depend on the trequartista’s performance, recent signs have been encouraging and indicate he is showing some consistency.
Messi scored both goals for Barca last weekend, yet despite the world’s best player’s storming from in front of goal Barcelona have looked vulnerable at the back, failing to keep a clean sheet in their previous nine games.. And let’s not forget that Celtic, so ruthlessly disposed of by Juventus, not only went to the Camp Nou and were within minutes of a result but took three points off the Catalans in Glasgow. So while the bookies will place Barca as outstanding favourites, the Curva Sud will be heaving by kick off with fans in full voice.
Tomorrow evening’s game has the potential to be a fulcrum for Milan’s season, a big loss could puncture their new found confidence undoing their recent good work, while a result might lift the entire team and inspire what is an extremely talented, if inexperienced set of players. A good performance is key, regardless of the result would hold the team in good stead, proving their moving in the right direction, and allowing them to build a head of steam on the domestic front.