Kick-off is drawing ever closer, and the tension is building. It can only be the UEFA Champions League. Last night’s matches were cagey, and at times you could see that the fear of losing was far greater than the reward of winning for some of the players. The first leg matches have traditionally been viewed as the proverbial sparring session in preparation for the heavyweight title fight that takes place in the second leg, and understandably so. Often these encounters are between two contrasting sides, who more often than not, are entirely unfamiliar with the other’s approach. Subconsciously, that’s why Barcelona’s match with AC Milan is so highly anticipated.
The group stage took care of the often tedious "sparring sessions"; now we can get down to business. As Guardiola remarked in his pre-match press conference, everyone knows the Barcelona philosophy, Milan included. So when the referee starts the game, there will be no sounding out period, none of this observe and adapt strategy. Both sides will instantly implement their game-plan, and at the end of the match, the team with the superior game-plan will leave with a favourable result.
So, a little later than I would have liked, here a few key battles to keep your eye on.
Javier Mascherano vs "I Am Zlatan" Ibrahimovic
This may surprise a few, as Gerard Pique appears to be better suited to the job of containing Ibrahimovic, but I feel that Javier Mascherano is the better candidate. Mascherano is quicker than his expected partner, and while Pique is the natural centre-back, Mascherano is arguably the better defender. His reading of the game is superb, while his superior agility enables him to recover when he makes a mistake. Ibrahimovic is a tricky customer, but is his repertoire varied enough to threaten the Argentine?
Well, as his frame suggests, Zlatan is a pretty physical guy. Standing 6’5" he boasts an eight inch advantage over Mascherano, as well as 10’s of kilograms, but Mascherano isn’t exactly feeble. If you cast your mind back to the match at San Mames, on the majority of occasions, it was Mascherano who went head to head with Fernando Llorente, and Llorente is a certified freak of nature. In fact, Llorente tried to bully Mascherano, but by the end of the match the Basque left the field with a ripped shirt and oodles of respect for the Argentine destroyer. Is Zlatan stronger than Llorente? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Maybe Zlatan can use his undoubted skill on the ball to escape Mascherano? Perhaps he could, but I simply cannot see Ibra getting past a quicker, more agile opponent with skill alone. His only real hope is to link up with his teammates, such as Boateng, but as we discovered during his ill-fated spell at the Camp Nou, Zlatan does not "do" teamwork. Zlatan is certainly a threat, but in Mascherano, Barcelona should be able to keep him on a tight leash.
Sergio Busquets vs Kevin-Prince Boateng
Linking in with the previous battle, there is the small matter of limiting the supply to Ibra, which means stopping Kevin-Prince Boateng. There are a couple of ways that Barcelona could do this, and the first quite conveniently fits in with their usual philosophy. Quite simply, keep possession, and Milan cannot have the ball. Without the ball, I have heard it is difficult to score goals, although I am not too sure in this case if Pique starts...just teasing, it is impossible to score without the ball, unless something incredibly fortuitous happens.
The second is a little more abstract for a team like Barcelona, and that is making the defensive midfielder destroy play. In my tactical analysis, I toyed with the idea of Mascherano at DM, but there simply isn’t enough cover at CB to allow that to happen, so Busquets has to take responsibility and do his best Mascherano impression as it were. Busi is a fabulous passer of the ball, and I am not suggesting he forgets about that side of his game, but instead, he needs to take the initiative and keep track with KPB’s movements. If KBP moves out to the left-hand side (the Barcelona right) Busquets needs to follow him, or cover at CB if Mascherano/Pique move out to take care of Boateng. Equally, I think this match is the perfect opportunity for Busquets to get forward a little more often.
Boateng is an industrious worker, but he is lacking match fitness, and therefore, he is unlikely to keep track of Busquets for the full 90 minutes. If Busi picks his moments, he could be that extra man who turns a sterile attack into a potent force, opening up space for his teammates to exploit. If Busquets gets the balance right, I guarantee that Barcelona will win the match.
Lionel Messi vs Alessandro Nesta
Here we go again. The first match in the group stage saw Nesta put in a master-class alongside Thiago Silva to virtually nullify Lionel Messi. Sure, Leo still helped himself to an assist, but it was probably his most difficult 90 minutes in quite some time. Since then however, Nesta has struggled with injuries while Lionel Messi has moved into top gear, breaking record after record in the process. Nesta’s inclusion on the bench for this past weekend’s encounter with Roma was his first time in the matchday squad for over a month, and to be thrown straight in against Messi in this kind of form is difficult to say the least.
But, that assumes we are dealing with your average centre-half. Oh no, this is Alessandro Nesta, the World Cup winning, two-time Champions League holder; a true colossus of the modern game. Forget Fabio Cannavaro and his Ballon D’Or, most will tell you that Nesta has been Italy’s greatest centre-half over the past decade, the true heir to the great Paolo Maldini. Despite his lack of match practice, and even though he can only be at 75% fitness, Nesta will prove a worthy adversary for Messi. Not for the first time, Milan’s fate rests on Nesta’s experienced shoulders.