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

Claudio Villa

A preview of Barcelona's UEFA Champions League first-leg clash with AC Milan at the San Siro

FC Barcelona travel to Milan tomorrow, where they return to UEFA Champions League action against a familiar foe: Massimiliano Allegri’s AC Milan. The two sides faced each other no less than four times last season – twice in the group stage and twice in the quarter-finals – and Milan failed to win even a single match, crashing out of the competition as a result, which, coupled with the Rossoneri’s failure to reclaim the Scudetto, led to a summer fire-sale at the San Siro. From superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, to experienced squad members such as Alessandro Nesta and Mark Van Bommel, Milan opted to completely rebuild their squad – and have suffered as a result.

Admittedly there have been positives to this process, and even the most optimistic Milanisti will point out that this project is a work-in-progress. Unfortunately, if Allegri harbours any hopes of reaching the last eight, he needs his side to perform like they are the finished product – even if that means relying heavily upon the talented Stephan El Shaarawy.

In an article for SB Nation’s Soccer section, resident Italian football expert Jack Sargeant highlighted the Italian’s importance in Allegri’s 4-3-3, but also drew attention to Milan’s lengthy injury list, pondering whether a weakened Rossoneri midfield will be able to compete with Barcelona.

Il Faraone represents a quick counter-attacking threat, dribbling inside on his stronger foot. Should he get in behind the notoriously offensive right-back Dani Alves, he’s liable to cause problems. Of course, if El Shaarawy is the key, a lot will hang on whether Milan can get the ball to him at all. With a full strength team they may have had a chance. With an unfamiliar and weakened midfield combination against a side who require such tactical discipline and unity, it's hard to be optimistic.

AC Milan's Midfield Woes Leave Little Room For Optimism

(Note: This quote was pieced together from various sections within the article itself)

So, while Milan possess one of the most talented youngsters in World Football, do Barcelona really have cause for concern? Much like David Villa, El Shaarawy often looks to cut inside, meaning he can often appear one-dimensional and when all is said and done, SES may be impressive, but is he really any more dangerous than Ibrahimovic? While Dani Alves’ offensive escapades can leave the Blaugrana vulnerable to counter-attacks, one can also argue that with a less than 100% El-Shaarawy on the field, Milan may be at a distinct disadvantage from a defensive standpoint as someone will have to cover the Brazilian’s marauding runs. When you consider that Allegri is likely to start a converted midfielder – Kevin Constant – at left-back, it’s easy to see why so many believe this tie will be won (and lost) on Barça’s right-flank.

*****

Another key talking point prior to the match tomorrow revolves around Xavi, and whether the influential Catalan midfielder will make his return from injury at the San Siro. In an ideal world, Xavi would have never been injured and therefore would have simply missed Saturday’s win over Granada through choice but does it really matter? Xavi was technically rested for Saturday’s win anyway meaning that he could be at 100% for tomorrow’s crunch encounter and that means that he could start. On the other hand, with Cesc Fàbregas, Andrés Iniesta and Thiago Alcântara all vying for a starting berth in midfield; one might argue that Barcelona can almost afford to leave Xavi on the bench.

Over on SB Nation Soccer, Zach Woosley crunched the numbers in an attempt to maintain whether or not Xavi does make a difference to Barcelona’s overall style of play. Naturally, the sample size is pretty small and there are issues regarding the quality of opposition in the games that Xavi has missed, but the table makes for interesting reading.

Games Played

Goals Per Game

Possession%/Game

Shots on Target/Game

Shot Attempts/Game

with Xavi

29

2.93

67.3

6.3

13.9

without Xavi

6

3.16

67.1

8

17

Xavi subbed in

4

2.75

65.5

8.25

14.25

As you can see, Barcelona – on average – score more goals, take more shots and register more shots on target per game without Xavi in midfield.

This could be an anomaly, but it could also show us that there is a difference in how Barcelona goes about their play without Xavi controlling things in the midfield. There's nothing truly concrete here, but it's something to think about.

The Present and Future of Barcelona, de-Xavi'd

As we’ve previously mentioned, Barcelona have been a little more direct under Tito Vilanova compared to their time under Pep Guardiola, and on the basis of Zach’s findings, we could probably extend that further to say that Barça are a little more direct without Xavi in midfield. Whether that’s a positive or a negative remains to be seen – and of course no-one is suggesting that the Blaugrana should bench Xavi just for the sake of it, but it does mean that Barça would probably be fine without their vice-captain on the field.

TEAM NEWS

BARCELONA

AC MILAN

FORM GUIDE

Barcelona: WWDDWW

AC Milan: DWWWDW

LAST MEETING

FC Barcelona 3-1 AC Milan – 3 April 2012 – UEFA Champions League

Two penalties from Lionel Messi and a rare goal from Andrés Iniesta secured Barcelona’s place in the final four, where they would face Chelsea. There were question marks surrounding the "validity" of the penalty decisions, but composed as ever, Messi duly tucked away both spot-kicks thus rendering Antonio Nocerino’s equaliser irrelevant.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta

AC Milan (4-3-3): Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; Montolivo, Nocerino, Ambrosini; Boateng, Pazzini, El Shaarawy

MATCH PREDICTION

Lest we forget that Barcelona typically struggle away from home in the UEFA Champions League, particularly against strong opposition like AC Milan so, while I do believe the Blaugrana have what it takes to win, it’s going to be a close-run thing. My head says draw, but I’m going with a second successive 2-1 victory.

For more coverage of tomorrow's match, be sure to check out our UEFA Champions League StoryStream.


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