UEFA Champions League: AC Milan vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

Can Lionel Messi break his duck against Italian sides?

What exactly is the point of this game for FC Barcelona? Sure, the winner of this match will almost certainly win the group, thus ensuring a more favourable draw (in theory), but is that necessary for the best team in the world? Do they need to win the group to be favourites for the first knockout tie? As far as I understand the Blaugrana cannot be paired with another Spanish team in the next round, meaning El Clasico cannot take place in the round of 16.

Therefore, it is hard to visualise a situation where Barcelona are knocked out in the next round meaning that this game seems to have the sole purpose of being an ego-booster for whomever comes away with the victory. However, this game means so much more than that.

It is AC Milan vs FC Barcelona at the San Siro. This match could easily be a semi-final encounter; the pedigree of either side is simply staggering. Between the two clubs the trophy case would fill up a whole floor. 10 UEFA Champions League titles, 39 league trophies and 9 UEFA Super Cups. The number of star names on each team is also mind-boggling.

Quite simply, this game is wasted at the group stage, but it will provide a thorough test for Pep Guardiola and his team. The Blaugrana’s away form has been distinctly average, while the Italians have recovered from their shaky start to turn the San Siro into a fortress, as every great team should with their home ground. Intimidating is an under-statement, hostile is generous, the fans tomorrow will be baying for blood, it will be a true test of nerves for some of our players.

That is almost certainly why Martin Montoya was not called up and – in my opinion – why Jonathan Dos Santos will not start. Instead Victor Valdes will start in goal as per usual, but ahead of him I think it will be Carles Puyol at right-back. This is a man who does play centre-back, but is more than adequate to play on the right. Remember the Champions League Final in Rome? That was the night Carles Puyol completely nullified Cristiano Ronaldo and his position? Right-back of course.

Saturday’s match against Real Zaragoza saw our captain play a little more offensively than usual, perhaps as preparation for this match? Either way, I have the utmost faith in Puyol’s ability to play right-back, especially if Milan set out as defensively as last time...

Without Puyol in the heart of the defense it leaves a couple of options. Both have Gerard Pique in one of the roles, but the question remains: who will be his partner? Eric Abidal was rested at the weekend and will be restored to the starting line-up, and given Maxwell’s performance on Saturday, I feel that Abidal should play as a centre-back with the Brazilian keeping his place on the left flank. However, Javier Mascherano has been first-choice in Puyol’s absence, and Pep may decide that two tall central defenders would have difficulty against the Milan attack, leaving Mascherano to partner Pique, and Abidal taking his usual place on the left. I just hope that Pique and Mascherano communicate a little better in the first minute.

Sergio Busquets was left out of the squad for Zaragoza, and as far as I am aware he has no injury. That means he will be fresh for this challenge, and top of his list of priorities should be Clarence Seedorf. At the Camp Nou he put on a master-class in the midfield, and he needs to be stopped (if he plays anyway). Busquets is not renowned as a destroyer, but he needs to pressure the veteran into mistakes, or at the very least keep possession to stop the Dutchman from receiving the ball.

Sergio should have Xavi for company in that midfield, but due to an injury Andres Iniesta has been left behind as a precaution meaning the Barca midfield is not quite at full-strength. Milan may be happy about that, but the replacements are just as worrying. Thiago has a point to prove after his good showing for the Spanish under 21’s, while Cesc Fabregas was a constant threat in Saturday’s win. As much as I would like to see Thiago from the start, I feel Pep will opt for Cesc, and it’s just a case of whether he makes better use of the scoring opportunities that will inevitably fall his way. The ex-Arsenal captain has forged a formidable understanding with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, and their partnership is one that even Milan will be hard-pressed to stop.

Of course La Pulga will start upfront, but I am not sure who will join him in the triumvirate attack. Isaac Cuenca is quite simply brilliant, but has he played in such an atmosphere before? How would he cope with Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta in defence? I say that we find out tomorrow eveing. Sure, the game is important, but it is not vital, and will be a good place for Cuenca to start learning, perhaps to challenge for a starting berth in El Clasico...

That being said, Pedro is fit to play, but a start may be a little too difficult, even for his tenacious work-rate. Instead Pedro may have to settle for a place on the bench, easing into a return in the final half-hour or so. Alexis Sanchez was good at the weekend, but not as good as Cuenca. It is clear that the Chilean is learning with every day that passes, though is he ready to start against Milan? He knows their defense better than any other Barcelona player, what with his experience in Serie A, so it will be between him and Cuenca for a start on the right-hand side.

That is because David Villa should take up the left-wing spot in a bid to win over his critics. I was pleased with his contribution off the bench on Saturday and despite his recent woes in front of goal, you simply have to start him in a match like this. A chance falls to the left-winger in the 80th minute with the scores level. I for one would want David Villa to be that man as he is still a world-class player. His scoring drought of last season was painful to watch, but around came the big game against Manchester United and he scored a fabulous goal. Villa scored in the Supercopa against Real Madrid, he is a big-game player. Let’s hope he reminds us all about that tomorrow.

A win would boost confidence levels in the camp, and surely herald a return to form for FC Barcelona. As of today we are exactly 51 weeks removed from that memorable Manita victory in El Clasico. November has always been the month where Barcelona hit the peak of their powers, although with the Clasico taking place in December, I have a slight incline that Pep may have altered the fitness plan to peak around 3 weeks from now.  That would mean that the Clasico would once again become the crescendo and these matches now are the build-up to that point.

In Guardiola’s way is a resolute Milan side coached by Massimiliano Allegri who are currently 3rd in Serie A, but have taken 16 points from a possible 18 in their last six matches. Christain Abbiati is expected to start in goal, but ahead of him will be a fearsome defense led by Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva. The Brazilian is a reported target of the Blaugrana and some have claimed that he is going to join in the summer, though he remains focused on his job. His header in the first game was a sucker punch, but was just desserts for such poor defending.

Nesta is a legend, and his performance at the Camp Nou was astounding. Stopping Lionel Messi on numerous occasions he was a brick wall in the heart of defense. Whether he can do it again is another matter, but he is likely to be backed up by Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini. Ahead of them should be Antonio Nocerino, ex-Barca man Mark Van Bommel and Alberto Aquilani. That is because usual midfield enforcer Massimo Ambrosini is celebrating the birth of his second child, born just earlier today.

Gennaro Gattuso is sidelined with his eye injury, although he has returned to training. Antonio Cassano is sidelined after heart surgery, so I expect Kevin-Prince Boateng to start behind a front line of Alexandre Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Pato is a fine footballer, and it pains me to say this, but his Swedish colleague is pretty decent as well...

When all is said and done, Ibra is hardly my favourite person, but his ability is undoubted, just a shame his attitude does not match. He will be hoping for a controversial reunion with Pep, if just to sell more his books, but I would settle for a Wayne Bridge-style blanking. Failing that I wouldn’t mind Pinto to come off the bench and do something stupid, perhaps he could emulate Ibrahimovic’s celebration with Cassano...

Zlatan Ibrahimovic kicks Antonio Cassano in the face (via SkillGame92)

As I said on Sunday in the Weekly Review, this is where the season really begins, where we find out about our team, and given previous experiences, I have no reason to be anything but confident. Whether the score line reflects this remains to be seen.

 

Match Prediction: Barcelona to scrape it 2-1, or slip to a draw. A narrow victory is the most I would expect.

 

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