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UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona vs AC Milan: Key Battles

How will Abate cope having just returned from injury?
How will Abate cope having just returned from injury?

4-0 vs Bayern Munich. 4-1 vs Arsenal. 5-1 vs Shakhtar Donetsk. Could a similar fate await AC Milan tonight at the Camp Nou? As you can see, Guardiola’s home record in the Champions League quarter-finals is formidable, but with the greatest of respect to each of those teams above, none of them are quite like AC Milan. Far from it, above are three attacking sides, while tonight’s opponent seems content to just sit back and defend. Word has it that Milan were even practising penalties last night, it appears that they will be content to try and scrape a draw, and who can blame them?

However, while their plan may sound "easy", it is going to take a monumental effort from the Rossoneri to progress. First off, Barcelona have always qualified for the semi-finals under Pep Guardiola, and progression tomorrow would be their fifth consecutive Champions League semi-final – a new competition record. Secondly, the last time Milan qualified for the semi-finals was in 2007, and coincidentally that was also the last time Barcelona did not. Thirdly, this is Milan’s record away from home in the knockout stages in the past five years:

Lost 3-0 to Arsenal
Drew 0-0 with Tottenham
Drew 0-0 with Arsenal
Won 2-0 against Bayern Munich
Lost 3-2 against Manchester United

Hardly makes for pleasant reading if you are a Milanisti.

Gerard Pique vs Robinho

Bearing in mind just how awful Robinho was last week, this battle looks to have a clear favourite. Following a recent resurgence, Gerard Pique is (again) proving himself to be one of Europe’s best centre-backs, while Robinho is still plagued by inconsistency. This is a man who was crowned as the "New Pele" after his big-money move to Real Madrid back 2005, but was quickly benched for being too flashy for coach Fabio Capello. Of course, that ill-fated move to Manchester City followed, where he was pretty awful after an initial spell of good form, and after a brief spell back at Santos, he found his way to Milan.

On the whole, his spell in Italy has probably been the most settled of his career, but we are still waiting for him to show us why Pele chose him as his heir apparent. Maybe at this point, a reference to Pele’s awful prediction skills is needed. Whatever the case, Robinho followed up his horror show against Barcelona with a goal away to Catania at the weekend, assisted by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Pique will have to be careful that he does not surge forward too often bearing in mind Robinho’s pace and link-up play with his former teammate, but equally, when Pique does get forward, I doubt Robinho will drop back to cover him. Therefore, when Pique gets the chance, he should drift further forward. His world-class passing ability could be pivotal in opening up a stubborn Milan defense, and his presence in the area at set pieces may have been overlooked by Allegri and co.

Xavi vs Clarence Seedorf

Yes, Xavi may not start; but equally, whoever does start in his place will be up against one of the best Dutchman of all-time. Clarence Seedorf has done it all, and multiple times in fact. His haul of four Champions League winners medals is up there with the best, and if I’m not mistaken, no-one else in the history of the sport has ever won the competition with three different clubs. The veteran has played in over 800 professional matches, over half of which have been for AC Milan, and not even the great Xavi can claim to have as much experience as the Dutch midfielder. Should Seedorf start as expected tonight, it will be his 157th Champions League appearance. It’s not that I don’t want Thiago or Cesc to start, but Xavi is the only man smart enough and experienced enough to do battle with the ex-Real midfielder.

Seedorf will look to play as "close to the line" as possible, knowing that any disruption he can cause to the Barcelona midfield will benefit his team. Given his masses of experience, he will know what he can, and cannot get away with, while players like Thiago (and to a lesser extent: Cesc) may not understand why certain fouls are not being called. Barcelona needs someone will a cool head; to put it simply, Barcelona needs Xavi to start.

Alexis Sanchez vs Iganzio Abate

The final area I think this game will be won and lost is on the Barcelona left-wing, where Alexis Sanchez (or whoever starts LW) will be up against the returning Ignazio Abate. Abate was sidelined for the first leg match between the two sides, but he did play in both of the group stage matches. The Italian isn’t renowned for being as proficient a defender as a few of his colleagues, but he does offer an attacking outlet, something Milan lacked desperately in the first leg. Abate’s pace and surging runs from deep are similar to that of Alves, although a touch more restrained, meaning that Alexis (or whoever starts LW) will have an important decision to make.

Do they follow Abate and track back to help the defense, or do they stay in position ready to exploit the space left behind if the Blaugrana retrieve possession? That is why I would opt for Alexis on the left. The Chilean is equally as, if not quicker than Abate anyway, and possesses an inhuman level of workrate. His pressing would undoubtedly force a mistake at some stage from the right-back who is likely to be a little rusty and out of practice. Can Abate keep up with Sanchez over the course of 90 minutes? I sincerely doubt it.

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