FC Barcelona – AC Milan Preview: “I’d put my hand on the fire – We’ll beat Milan,” says Iniesta
Only three players from the eleven that had started the game at San Siro in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League against AC Milan were present in the starting lineup in the league game against Deportivo on Saturday – Carles Puyol, Dani Alves and Cesc Fabregas. This fact alone is enough to measure the level of seriousness with which Barca is approaching the second leg.
Barcelona has one hand on the league title, but Tuesday’s clash against Milan is either set to define their season as an under-achieving one or a season that is going as expected except for the minor blip in the Copa Del Rey. On the back of two consecutive defeats to arch-rivals Real Madrid, same as the total number of El Clasico defeats in the 4 year tenure of Pep Guardiola, Barcelona right now is standing on thin ice, as teams are willing to take their chances on the counter-attack on these big occasions.
After the first leg, the two defeats against Madrid laid bare the weaknesses of the Barca defence – lack of speed and lack of height. Each season, we hear rumours of Barcelona looking to sign a top-class defender, but as has been the trend, they always end up with a player who is expected to add an extra dimension to their attack. But that is an issue that may not really have an effect on Tuesday’s match, as Milan will most likely look to defend their lead as if their lives are at stake and attack cautiously. But 13 consecutive games without a clean sheet (before the Deportivo match) clearly indicates the department which needs reinforcements.
There is no doubt whatsoever in whosoever’s mind as to how Barcelona would approach this game. To overcome a two-goal deficit, you need to score three goals. Simple enough. But the beauty of two-legged clashes will come into play if Milan were to score a goal of their own. Then Barca would have to score four. Therefore, although there is no alternative to an all-out attack, Barca should also set a clean sheet as an equally important objective in their game plan.
Moving on to the team selections, David Villa did not build a strong case for himself in the match against Deportivo, as he failed to make the most of the few goal-scoring opportunities that he got. Although he is a natural goal-scorer, he still lacks that confidence to put the ball in the net without second thoughts. The one player who did make a strong case was Cristian Tello, as time and again he caused problems to Deportivo’s full-back Manuel Pablo with his electrifying pace. Should he start against Milan, Messi’s perfectly caressed left-footed passes from the center of the pitch should enable him to slip behind the defense and offer some much needed wing-play to the Barcelona attack. What’s more, Tello also has a decent shot from the edge of the area while cutting inside from the wing.
Even Alexis Sanchez, who has been virtually ineffective all season, had a very good game, chipping in with a goal and an assist. But he might not start the Milan match given that Pedro has been rested specifically for that purpose. Lionel Messi has now scored in 17 consecutive league games after coming on as a substitute against Deportivo, breaking a world record dating back to the 1930s, but we all know he would happily swap that record for a pass to the quarter-finals. Xavi is currently injured and is doubtful to start the Milan match. Otherwise, all regulars of the starting line-up have been rested in the league match and are fit.
Expected starting lineup: Victor Valdes – Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba – Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Cristian Tello – Lionel Messi.
Player to watch out for: Cristian Tello
Milan are also on a good run, having won their last two league matches, and are currently placed third in Serie A. Giampaola Pazzini has been left out of the squad after he got injured in their 2-0 win over Genoa. With Balotelli cup-tied in the competition, Stephan El Shaarawy may lead their attack along with Bojan Krkic, the ex-Barcelona youngster, marking an emotional return to the Camp Nou for him. Philippe Mexes and Kevin Prince Boateng have been included in the squad despite struggling with muscle problems over the past few days. But whatever the starting line-up may be, they will back themselves to go through and rightly so, especially after their performance in the first leg.
Expected starting lineup: Christian Abbiati – Ignazio Abate, Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, Kevin Constant – Riccardo Montolivo, Massimo Ambrosini, Sulley Muntari – Kevin Prince Boateng, Stephan El Shaarawy, Bojan Krkic
Player to watch out for: Stephan El Shaarawy
All in all, matches like these remind us why we love football so much. It is an evenly balanced one, given the support that Barcelona will receive in their beloved Camp Nou and the two goal lead that Milan have.
Barcelona will definitely fancy their chances at their home ground, but this is a wounded Barcelona that we are talking about, and when a generally modest and diplomatic Iniesta says, “I’d put my hand on the fire – We’ll beat Milan,” all we can say is, Milan, you have been warned.