FC Barcelona can extend their lead at the top of Group H to a maximum of five points tomorrow, as they prepare to host Max Allegri's struggling AC Milan at the Camp Nou. It will be the eighth time in the past three seasons that these two clubs have squared off in UEFA Champions League action and over that period at least, the Blaugrana have made the Camp Nou something of a fortress, winning two and drawing the other meeting with the Rossoneri. This run of course culminated with Barcelona's spectacular 4-0 mauling of Milan back in March -- in a performance that many labelled as the best since the Manita victory over Real Madrid in November 2010.
High praise indeed, and one could be forgiven for expecting a similar result tomorrow evening. After all, Barcelona will be fully rested after their four day break while Milan continue to struggle with both injuries and poor form. Admittedly their home form has only been patchy at best, but Milan's away form has been nothing short of abysmal: Allegri's side are yet to register an away win this season (in seven attempts). As evidenced by their atrocious defensive record (15 goals conceded in those seven fixtures), Milan simply don't possess the same defensive discipline away from the San Siro -- and dare I suggest that the quality of the pitch may have something to do with this record?
Whatever the reason, the Rossoneri need to rectify their problems -- and fast. At this rate, Allegri only has a matter of games to save his job -- and the UEFA Champions League matches must be of particular importance if one assumes that Milan's UCL standing is one of the few saving graces of Allegri's increasingly shambolic reign.
With that in mind, how will Allegri approach this game? Will the pressure liberate the Italian to try a different, more offensive approach, or will it force Milan into a defensive shell and hope for a point?
Brazilian full-back Adriano Correia is set to make his return after a slight knock ruled him out of Friday's derby win over Espanyol, although there are still a few question marks surrounding the match fitness of Barça's four-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi. His "downturn" or "decline" has been well documented, with many pointing to Messi's recent injury as a reason for his slight drop in statistical productivity. Note that I fall short of saying "form" because really, Messi has been playing well. Whatever the case, all eyes will be on Messi tomorrow, who will undoubtedly be hoping to return to goalscoring form in front of the adoring Camp Nou crowd.
Victor Valdes helped himself to a tenth clean sheet of the season on Friday and has a chance to make it three in a row tomorrow -- an accomplishment that has evaded him thus far this season. In fact, you have to go as far back as x for the last time that Barça registered three consecutive shut-outs; so is it realistic to be hoping for another clean sheet tomorrow?
At face value it does seem odd. Barcelona will be up against one of the most talented strikers in the world in Mario Balotelli and let's face it; the form book really isn't on our side here. However, recent performances seem to suggest that Gerard Piqué is back to or at least approaching his very best, while Barça's full-backs are no longer being frequently caught out. Certainly I'm having trouble identifying those shortfalls that countless experts analysed ad infinitum in the summer.
Even without a Thiago Silva or a David Luiz, the Blaugrana seem a little more balance – perhaps as a result of Jordi Alba’s injury? If true, Martino may have a difficult decision to make upon the Catalan full-back’s return to fitness, but for now, let’s turn our attentions back to tomorrow’s game; who will start in the Barça backline?
Chances are that both Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves retain their places in the starting line-up, although it’s possible that both Martin Montoya and Javier Mascherano could drop to the bench despite playing their part in Friday’s clean sheet. Adriano’s return to fitness definitely hints that he will return to the fold, while I have a feeling that Martino may be looking to hand a start to either Marc Bartra or Carles Puyol – the latter of course forms a formidable partnership with the resurgent Geri Piqué, and the double-act are yet to feature together since Puyol’s return from a seven month lay-off.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets could probably use a rest, but is unlikely to get one given the stature of tomorrow’s opposition, as well as the importance of the fixture, meaning that Martino may well want to plan for a Busquets-less midfield on Sunday by resting Xavi. Cesc Fàbregas could deputise in his absence, while Andrés Iniesta would continue to fill the other advanced midfield berth. Rumours from the oft-unreliable and sensationalist Daily Star over here in England suggest that both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are readying bids in excess of £15 million for young Sergi Roberto – so I expect many of you will be in favour of starting Roberto in order to pre-empt another "Thiago", but I remain doubtful that he is ready for a match of this calibre, so he’ll likely have to make do with a place on the bench – at very best.
Moving onto the attack, let’s gloss over Lionel Messi. We know he’ll start and the whole "form" thing was mentioned earlier, so there’s no real need to revisit it again; but there is a need to revisit another topic: the form of Alexis Sánchez and Neymar. Barça Blaugranes editor Luis Mazariegos summarised it best when he said that they are "proving the doubters wrong".
Neymar has coped admirably with the "step up" from Brazil to Europe, further lending weight to the argument that European football isn’t actually that far ahead of football’s second-biggest continent, all the while demonstrating the teamwork that arguably sets him apart from the likes of Robinho and if we want a Barça-related example, Keirrison, who both made similar big money moves, only to struggle to replicate the form they displayed back in Brazil. Alexis Sánchez on the other hand had previously struggled for confidence and indeed clarity about his role in first Pep Guardiola’s, then Tito Vilanova’s system, but under Tata Martino, the Chilean has been a revelation. With seven La Liga goals to his name, he is easily on course to eclipse the 12 goal haul he achieved in his debut season, and he may even break the 20-goal barrier and become the first Barça player not named Lionel Messi to do so since Samuel Eto’o.
With any luck, both Sánchez and Neymar will start tomorrow, ideally making a similar impact to last Friday against Espanyol.
Mario Balotelli is fit and ready to start his first match at the Camp Nou, but enters this fixture stuck in something of a rut. He’s no longer the powerful striker to be feared by opposing defenders; at the moment, Balotelli is reverting back to his "Manchester City form", where he’s hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. On Saturday, "Super" Mario picked up his eighth yellow card of the season. When you consider that this doesn’t include the double-yellow/red card he earned against Napoli, and that he missed four matches through suspension/injury, it’s quite a total. He’s being petulant, and as Cristiano Ronaldo/Pepe/Sergio Ramos have demonstrated on countless occasions, Barcelona doesn’t bring the best out of petulant characters. Whether it’s a trademark strop, or a more violent approach, Barça often extract the worst reactions from short-fused players; will Balotelli be the next to make a fool of himself?
AC Milan 1-1 FC Barcelona – 22nd October 2013 – UEFA Champions League
Robinho surprisingly gifted the Rossoneri the lead before the supposedly out-of-form Lionel Messi rescued a point with a sublime finish.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Adriano; Busquets, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Neymar
Milan (4-1-3-1-1): Amelia; Abate, Zaccardo, Zapate, Constant; De Jong; Muntari, Montolivo, Poli; Kaka; Balotelli
Barça couldn’t pick up the three points away from home – but it should be a different matter altogether at the Camp Nou. I’m going for an incredibly optimistic 3-0 home win.
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- FC Barcelona News: 5 November 2013; Preparations Begin for AC Milan, Jonathan Dos Santos Surgery a Success
- 100 Days of Tata Martino: Barcelona Tactics, Tiki Taka, Possession, and El Clasico
- FC Barcelona News: 4 November 2013; Jonathan Dos Santos' Surgery Set for Tuesday, Atletico Defeat Athletic Bilbao
- FC Barcelona News: 3 November 2013; Barça on Top of La Liga for 50 Straight Weeks, Lionel Messi Not at 100%
- La Liga: FC Barcelona 1-0 RCD Espanyol: Player Ratings