FC Barcelona will be looking to bounce back from Saturday's disappointing 0-0 draw with CA Osasuna and preserve their 100% UEFA Champions League record with a win over AC Milan tomorrow at the San Siro. Despite a slow start to the new Serie A campaign, the Rossoneri have earned four points from their opening two group stage fixtures and even in the face of a growing injury crisis, Massamiliano Allegri's boys will be hoping to emulate last season's shock 2-0 win over the Blaugrana.
On that fateful night in February, Milan defended as a unit and were brutally efficient on the counter-attack – but their delight was short-lived as Barcelona produced one of their most complete performances in recent memory to overturn the deficit and progress 4-2 on aggregate.
With Mario Balotelli likely to shake off a knock and start in the centre of the Milan attack, one might argue that the Rossoneri are more dangerous this season, despite their modest domestic record. However, the same can be said of FC Barcelona and regardless of their hectic schedule or the weekend’s draw with Osasuna, Barça enter this match as favourites.
Lionel Messi started Saturday's draw with Osasuna on the Barcelona bench, but is expected to return to the starting lineup alongside a raft of other first team regulars, including his Argentine compatriot Javier Mascherano and former La Masia teammate Gerard Piqué. Both Mascherano and Piqué were rested for Saturday's stalemate -- El Jefecito was an unused substitute while Piqué didn't even make the trip to Pamplona as Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino rotated his squad with the weekend's Clasico in mind. Will we see a similar approach tomorrow?
Even if we do, we can be certain that Victor Valdes will start in goal. The Catalan shot stopper may be closing in on a summer move to AS Monaco, but he's shown no signs of losing focus and only a fool would question his commitment to the club. After all, Valdes is currently in the form of his life, having kept five clean sheets in the past seven games for the Blaugrana; certainly his efforts between the sticks have been a decisive factor in Barcelona's dominant start to the season.
Valdes has also been commonly seen barking orders to his teammates, demonstrating that Barça will not only be losing a great goalkeeper this summer, they will also be losing a great leader. These fears however have been temporarily quelled by the triumphant return of our club captain, Carles Puyol. Returning to action after a seven month absence, Puyol showed no signs of rust against Osasuna -- and went on to surprise many by completing the full 90 minutes. Unfortunately this will probably rule Puyol out of contention for a starting berth in tomorrow's match, but it was great to see El Capitan back on the field.
So if Puyol isn't starting, just who is expected to get the nod?
The safe bet is on Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano renewing their partnership in the centre of defense, with Dani Alves and either Adriano or Martin Montoya in support at right and left-back respectively -- but how does that impact on Martino's team selection in the Clasico? Can Mascherano start two matches in such a short period of time having just returned from injury? Will Adriano start all three of Barcelona's fixtures this week after another international break in Catalunya? Every decision will have a knock-on effect; it'll certainly be a good test of Martino's rotation policy.
Similar questions can be asked of the midfield as Martino's selection could insinuate that any one of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta will start three matches in a week, even after a hectic international break. Does Martino risk "over-playing" some of his key midfielders, or does he "risk it" and give youth a chance? If I had to guess, I think that Martino will either opt for a midfield trio of Alex Song, Cesc Fábregas and Xavi or start Busquets alongside Cesc and Sergi Roberto -- but what do I know?
The attack however basically picks itself. Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello with Neymar and Pedro available off the bench. I'd definitely be surprised to see Neymar start anyway, and unless Barça are losing/drawing, I also suspect that Messi will not complete the 90 minutes.
Milan are set to hand star striker Mario Balotelli a late fitness test as the volatile Italian attempts to recover from his latest injury setback to return against Barcelona. The former Manchester City forward was ineligible for last season’s Round of 16 and will be eager to make his mark against the Blaugrana. However, even if Balotelli does make his comeback, Milan will be without their number one, Christian Abbiati, talented young full-back, Mattia De Sciglio and lively winger, Stephan El Shaarawy.
FC Barcelona 4-0 AC Milan – 12th March 2013 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona put in a performance for the ages to overturn a two-goal deficit and book their place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, as goals from Lionel Messi (2), David Villa and Jordi Alba secured a memorable comeback.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Montoya; Busquets, Roberto, Fàbregas; Sánchez, Messi, Tello
AC Milan (4-1-3-1-1): Amelia; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; De Jong; Muntari, Nocerino, Poli; Montolivo; Balotelli
A trip to the San Siro is never going to make my list of "easy games", especially with a Clasico scheduled for the very same week – and I expect Barça to "struggle" to a narrow victory. I’m going for a 2-1 Barça win.
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- FC Barcelona News: 21 October 2013; Barca Travel to Italy to Face AC Milan, El Clasico Follows on Weekend
- La Liga: FC Barcelona 0-0 CA Osasuna: Player Ratings
- FC Barcelona News: 20 October 2013; Barça No Longer Perfect After Osasuna Draw, Squad Named for Milan Game
- From The Mind of Xoel: Barça Struggles as Draw Feels Like a Loss, Yet Now Lead La Liga
- La Liga: CA Osasuna 0-0 FC Barcelona: Match Review