Abbiati and Messi will be protagonists again - Jasper Juinen
The UEFA Champions League continues as Barca travel to Milan for a round of 16 match. Who is out injured, who will play, and which matchups are important? Can Barca defend Stephan El Shaarawy? Can the shaky Rossoneri defense contain Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta?
Champions League football is about an hour away for Barcelona, as they take on AC Milan at the San Siro.
Meanwhile, Milan are without Daniele Bonera (left thigh), Luca Antonini (knee), Nigel De Jong (Achilles tendon), Mathieu Flamini (muscle), Antonio Nocerino (hamstring), and Robinho (knee inflammation).
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Cesc; Iniesta, Messi, Pedro
Milan (4-3-3): Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; Montolivo, Ambrosini, Muntari; Boateng, Pazzini, El Shaarawy.
Barca will press high up the pitch, as they will no doubt have most of the possession throughout the match. On the other hand, Milan will sit back, stay narrow, and try to break quickly to score on the counter.
Alba vs. Boateng
With Andres Iniesta cutting inside on the left wing, Jordi Alba will have to bomb down the flank to give Barca proper width. Kevin-Prince Boateng will play a large role in how the Rossoneri defend. He is likely to try to help with the press, but he will also need to keep track of Alba. If the Catalan can get down the flank, he can cause problems for Ignazio Abate and Philippe Mexes. I imagine Sulley Muntari will be the midfield man closest, but he may be occupied by the movement of either Cesc Fabregas or Lionel Messi.
Messi vs. Muntari / Ambrosini and everyone else
Messi is the key man of course for Barca, playing in the central striker position. The Argentine is bound to drift back into midfield, at which point Milan will have to make a choice. Will they follow him, leaving space in behind? Or will they let him go, and risk giving Messi of all people time and space? Rumors are that Muntari is the man tasked with following Messi wherever he goes. Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi even declared to the press that his team should mark Messi with two players. Whoever they are, they will have their hands full.
Alves vs El Shaarawy
Dani Alves is one of the most fearsome right-backs in the world when it comes to attack. An unselfish, fast player, he likes to get down to the flank and seek his partner-in-crime Messi or try to set up Pedro Rodriguez. Stephan El Shaarawy has been Milan's best player and he is the most dangerous threat to score against Barca. With Alves pushing forward on the flank, will Il Faraone risk staying in attack? If he does, Alves can cause problems by overloading Kevin Constant's flank, but at the same time, if Milan recover possession, El Shaarawy will be in a great position to score himself.
Kickoff aproaches and we have two different situations on either side. Barcelona has familiarity. Anyone could have predicted this lineup two months ago, barring the odd injury. On the other hand, Milan are a bit more unpredictable. With De Jong, Nocerino and Flamini out, Muntari and Ambrosini are almost the only choices in defensive midfield. There is some unfamiliarity in the XI, especially without Mario Ballotelli. Just as the Rossoneri were getting comfortable with him, they will have to play without him and bring back Giampaolo Pazzini as the central striker.
Will the understanding and intricate interplay of the Catalans win out? Or will the team spirit and flashes of unpredictability from Milan, buoyed by a roaring home crowd, shock the world?