FC Barcelona host AC Milan tomorrow looking to pull off their greatest ever European comeback and qualify for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League for the sixth successive season. Even with the Camp Nou crowd behind them, the odds are firmly stacked against the Blaugrana who are not only 2-0 behind following a disappointing first-leg at the San Siro, but are also without their head coach Tito Vilanova, and they may well be without influential midfielder Xavi too. Sure, AC Milan will be without Giampaolo Pazzini and there are doubts surrounding the fitness of Philippe Mexes but make no mistake, all the pressure is on Barcelona.
For once, the debate isn’t about who starts for the Blaugrana; instead, all the focus is on how the XI will line-up on the field. Will we see Barça revert back to a three-man defense? Last week, Catalan newspaper Sport speculated about a highly attacking 3-3-4 formation, others have pondered a return to the 3-4-3, while some would prefer to see a 4-2-3-1. Whatever your viewpoint; it seems likely at this stage that Barcelona will simply take to the field in their usual 4-3-3 tactic. After all, it’s the "best" tactic at our disposal in the sense that it allows us to start all – or almost all – of our most talented players, in their preferred positions.
Victor Valdés will return in goal after serving one match of his four-game suspension for insulting the referee in Barcelona’s controversial 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. While Jose Manuel Pinto did keep a clean sheet in the Catalan’s absence, Valdés is still our number one, and with good reason. Valdés is an exceptional shot-stopper, proficient with the ball at his feet and more than that, he’s also a leader – and if Barça are serious about overturning this deficit, they need all the leadership they can get.
Speaking of leaders, Carles Puyol should start in the heart of defense after what can only be described as a dominant performance against Deportivo, although whether our captain is still able to cope with the rigours of two matches in a week remains to be seen. If not, then Javier Mascherano will be a more than suitable replacement, but of course, Puyol is first-choice in a situation like this. As is Gerard Piqué, who rallied the fans ahead of tomorrow’s match, while both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba are likely to start in some capacity – whether it’s on either side of defense or in a more advanced role.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, hopefully refreshed after sitting out Saturday’s win over Deportivo. Busquets continued to shine despite Barcelona’s slight dip in form, but they need him to be on the top of his game to keep AC Milan at bay. Not only that, but they need Busi to ensure that the ball moves around a little quicker than it has in previous weeks – tempo has been one major issue with the Barça attack recently; sure, they have the ball, but they need to circulate it quicker if they wish to exploit any weaknesses in the Milan defense. With that in mind, does that mean that Roura should leave Xavi out of the starting XI tomorrow? Xavi is a world-class player, but is unlikely to be at the peak of his powers following a niggling injury, so should we keep Xavi in reserve and let Thiago go for the kill? He can be a little error-prone, but Thiago is always looking for the killer pass; it’s about risk and reward – does Roura risk it all and start Thiago, or play it safe and opt for Xavi? Personally, I would go for Thiago and that allows us to bring Xavi off the bench to control the game if we ever overturn the deficit; but it’s tough to predict what Tito or Jordi have in mind. Either way, expect Andrés Iniesta to start in the other midfield berth.
Similarly, Lionel Messi will start in attack, but will he start as a "false nine", or will he start on the wing? Will he have another centre-forward in support? I think we’ll "play it safe" and go for the usual 4-3-3 with Messi in the centre, but perhaps a change would benefit the team? Assuming Roura does go for the 4-3-3, Alexis Sánchez should at least be considered a starting role. His performance on Saturday was good, if not brilliant and his lateral speed may well be the key to unlocking a resolute Milan defense. On the other hand, can we afford to leave out a striker with the pedigree of David Villa? Barça need goals after all, and behind Messi, Villa is most likely to grab those goals. Maybe El Guaje will start on the left with Pedro – who usually delivers in these "big games" – on the right? Is Cristian Tello our secret weapon? So many questions...just under 24 hours to wait for the answers...
Giampaolo Pazzini is set to miss out through injury, Philippe Mexes faces a late fitness test while of course, Mario Balotelli is still cup-tied. On paper, Milan will not be at full strength but they will still play in the same manner – sit back, absorb pressure and pounce if the opportunity arrives. With Stephan El Shaarawy in attack, Milan will always threaten on the counter, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an Italian team that cannot defend; but Barcelona are still the "better" team. The only question is whether Milan are more effective...
AC Milan 2-0 FC Barcelona – 20th February 2013 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona couldn’t make their possession count, falling to a 2-0 defeat against AC Milan at the San Siro. There were question marks surrounding the validity of the game’s opening goal as Kevin-Prince Boateng appeared to take advantage of a Zapata handball, but ultimately, Barcelona deserved to lose.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Pedro
Milan (4-3-2-1): Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; Montilivo, Ambrosini, Muntari; Robinho Boateng; El Shaarawy
Barcelona will start strong – they have to – and I think that it’s going to go down to the wire; but will the Blaugrana have enough?