FC Barcelona will be taking their first steps in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League as they visit AC Milan. The Catalans are eyeing the incoming Clasicos against Real Madrid as well, and Milan are worried about a city derby match against Inter on the horizon
Barca come into this match following a nervous league game against Granada in which Lionel Messi scored two second-half goals to rescue three points after the Andalusians had taken the lead. Meanwhile, Milan were a bit more comfortable in their 2-1 victory over Parma, as they led 2-0 until conceding a last-minute consolation goal.
If Barcelona are to claim victory, they will need to pay special attention to some key elements. The following are three of those important factors.
Beating the Press
No, not punching Gazzetta dello Sport. This means that when Barcelona start to build their attacks from deep positions, Milan will rush in to disrupt the play. Barca have to be particularly wary of this and be able to move the ball around the incoming Rossoneri players. If they do that, the road ahead will be more clear.
Milan will probably use three forwards - Giampaolo Pazzini in the center, Stephan El Shaarawy on the left, and Kevin-Prince Boateng on the right. Bojan Krkic and M'Baye Niang are also options, though they are likely to be subs.
Boateng is particularly adept at disrupting play because he is fast and strong. Against Juventus a few weeks back, Boateng was often seen pressing Andrea Pirlo, and the Italian superstar did not have a good day. Milan won that match 1-0. Boateng will likely face off against Sergio Busquets this time, and how good the Catalan responds will largely dictate how fluid Barca are in their attacks.
El Shaarawy has been singled out for his goalscoring prowess, and rightly so, but his role will be a bit less flashy and a bit more sacrificial as he defends his side against the likes of Daniel Alves. Pazzini is known more for his hold-up play and is less mobile, but he will also participate in the press.
The front three will be secure in the knowledge that Milan will have good replacements should their energy dwindle, and Mario Balotelli will be available for their next match and thus give one of them a bit of rest.
If Barcelona can break past the initial wave of pressing, they will go into the opposition half with less players parking the bus. Then, Barca will become extremely dangerous.
The last time Barca and Milan met at the San Siro, the Rossoneri head coach Max Allegri opted to play a very narrow and deep defense. With the Blaugrana trying to attack the middle of the box, and with a severely poor pitch, Milan were able to keep a clean sheet.
In the return leg, Isaac Cuenca was selected on the wing for the home team. Cuenca did not necessarily produce much in the way of end product per se, but he did stretch the pitch, allowing Andres Iniesta and Messi more space to try their clever combinations.
Pedro Rodriguez must try to stay wide if he can to give the team balance. On the other side, with Iniesta in all probability playing the left-wing role, the responsibility to give width will go to Jordi Alba.
Boateng will be worried about defending a bit more, so Alba can be brave... but he must also watch out and be intelligent enough to pick the right times to fly up the flank.
Cuenca is on loan after a long-term injury, but Cristian Tello or Alexis Sanchez are options to stretch the play if the starting XI is having trouble. David Villa is still recovering from kidney issues and will be unavailable.
Some fans may moan at the prospect of playing Alexis after the Chilean missed key chances in the last match, but this is the type of game Alexis is meant to play. Will a return to Italy reignite Alexis, will he falter yet again, or will the coaching staff not even use him?
Whoever winds up playing, the key is to open up the pitch for the best players in the world - Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi.
Barcelona actually do not concede that many set pieces goals despite the players' short stature. Their effective use of zonal marking at corners has made up for their height disadvantage more often than not.
However, Milan are a tall team that is good at winning aerial duels. Barca are unlikely to get much joy through the air, as the Milan defense are good at set piece defending as well.
Let's assume for a second that Milan line up with the players I guessed in the scouting report yesterday. The average height of all eleven players is 6'0'', or 1.83 inches. (The lineup Sky Sports Italia is predicting, by the way, has only two variations from my prediction, and both players are slightly taller.)
Of those, Valdes is 6'0'', Pique is 6'4'', Busquets is 6'2'' and a half, and everyone else is smaller than the average Milan player. Sure, there could be variations in the starting XI, but there aren't many tall players waiting on the bench anyway. This is not, by the way, particularly unusual for a short side like Barca's.
The issue, of course, is that Barca must be at their sharpest to defend those opportunities because they will be at a disadvantage. In the previous campaign, Los Cules gave up a late equalizer off a corner that Thiago Silva headed into the net in a match against Milan. Concentration must be at its peak to prevent a recurrence.
Barcelona are the favored side but by no means will it be easy at the San Siro. Milan have the physical capabilities to press Barca and make life complicated for the backline and Busquets to come out. The narrow defense will try to stifle Messi, Iniesta, and Fabregas. Milan will use their height advantage to attempt to snatch a goal on set pieces.
If Barcelona can move out of the press, stay wide, and defend set pieces, their chances of coming away with a great result increase dramatically.