Evenings in the fall have a distinct air about them on the European continent, marked by the appearance of certain seasonal cues; early sunsets, the appearance of the winter market, and most importantly dear reader, Champions League football. Now several matches into the season, the initial excitement of the tournament’s return has given way to more practical thoughts: have we played well thus far? Who do we face next? Is topping the group within our reach?
Luckily for Barcelona fans, these questions are increasingly immaterial. The Catalans travel to face AC Milan in the San Siro this Wednesday evening knowing that a win in Northern Italy will cement their status atop Group H. Boasting a two point lead over the Rossoneri going into match, a win would open up an unassailable five point gap between the two European giants with one game yet to play. Barcelona face the most decisive match of their season thus far, and will be looking to secure a victory that would allow them to focus their efforts on the upcoming La Liga fixture list, including a crucial trip to the Bernabéu on December 10th.
The opening game of Group H saw Barcelona fall victim to one of the fastest goals in UEFA history, a 24th second strike from Milan’s Brazilian prodigy Pato. A match that eventually ended as a 2-2 draw exposed the Catalan’s weakness in defense when without the services of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué, with Sergio Busquets guilty of some particularly poor defending leading up to the first goal. Busquets’ stop-gap placement in defense proved disastrous within the first minute of play, and some comically poor defending from a last-minute set piece proved enough to undo a Barcelona side that was effectively pegged back by the Italians for much of the game.
A draw against one of Europe’s best teams was not in itself a poor result, but the manner in which it transpired raised serious questions about Barcelona’s ability to cope with injuries early in the season. Habitually poor at defending set pieces, Barcelona were exposed at the back on several occasions by a combination of Milan’s youth and experience, with the evergreen Clarence Seedorf setting up several dangerous counter attacks. The recent return of center back pairing Puyol and Piqué should help to diffuse Milan’s attacking menace, but Barcelona’s lack of height continues to present challenges.
Luckily, much has changed for Barcelona since matchday one. Sublime dismantlings of BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen have left Barcelona two points clear at the top of Group H, with AC Milan having succumbed to a 1-1 away draw to BATE Borisov the reason for the disparity in points. The Catalans have been in predictably fine league form as well, and now find themselves relatively free of injuries for the trip to Milan, save the absence of Iniesta, Adriano, and Afellay.
Saturday’s 4-0 victory over league strugglers Zaragoza gave coach Guardiola an opportunity to rest a number of first team players after the international break, with the return to fitness of Alexis Sánchez an added bonus going into Wednesday evening. Seeing Puyol and Piqué marshal the defense for a full ninety minutes leads me to believe that we will see them start together in Milan, the duo being an obvious choice to interrupt the Italians flow of play. Unfortunately they may not be together in the middle: with Dani Alves suspended after picking up another yellow card in the group during the previous encounter with Viktoria Plzen, I expect to see Puyol out on the right, with Javier Mascherano slotting in next to Piqué. It’s been a while since Puyol has had to do so, but in previous seasons he has done so with aplomb, so let’s wait and see. Abidal, rested against Zaragoza, should resume his place on the left.
Choices in the midfield are shaped by the news that Andrés Iniesta picked up a small injury Saturday, and the Catalans will travel to Italy without Don Andrés as a precaution. I expect Xavi and Thiago to start alongside Busquets; it would be nice to see Mascherano placed in the libero role above the defense, especially given Busquets’ shameful performance on match day one, but I just don’t see it. There are some things Pep likes to experiment with, but I don’t think that this is one of them.
Up top expect to see the main three, i.e. Messi, Villa and Pedro. Villa’s late appearance on Saturday and Pedro’s lack of play means that both should be fully fit and ready to play, while Messi clearly needs no rest at all, ever. Having taken a circuitous route back from national team duty in Columbia midweek, the diminutive Argentine proceeded to play a full ninety minutes on Saturday, much to Zaragoza’s dismay. While I half expected (hoped) to see Guardiola haul off la pulga at the half, one gets the impression that Messi just wasn’t having it.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdès, Puyol, Mascherano, Piquè, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Villa, Messi, Pedro
Milan warmed up for their decisive visit from Barcelona with a disappointing 0-0 draw with Fiorentina on Saturday, a result that saw them sink to third in the league. The most interesting news coming out of the AC Milan camp ahead of Wednesday’s encounter is the recent release of former Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography, complete with several scathing passages from his time in Catalunya. That the big Swede was able to find the time to write an autobiography is surprising enough (perhaps while recovering from his training ground bustup with former team mate Oguchi Onyewu?), but his naked aggression towards head coach Guardiola led Barcelona Vice President Carles Villarubi to reveal an anecdote of his own. Speaking to radio station RAC1, Villarubi described an interaction with the tae-kwon-do black belt where “…he threatened to beat Guardiola in public, saying that he would do so unless released from his contract”. Pep’s lack of comment towards these allegations seems to reveal a bit about both of these men’s characters I think.
Milan’s tactics on match day one worked incredibly well against a Barcelona side that saw their probing runs blocked at nearly every turn, and I expect them to remain unchanged come Wednesday. The excellent Christian Abbiati should start between the posts, with Thiago Silva (scorer of the late goal in the previous encounter), Alessandro Nesta, Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini making up the back four.
Former Barcelona strongman Mark van Bommel should anchor the midfield in favor of the more attack-minded Alberto Aquilani, suiting up alongside Clarence Seedorf, Antonio Nocerino and Urby Emanuelson. In attack the big difference from match day one will be the appearance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who we should see alongside strike partner Pato. Former Real Madrid badboy Antonio Cassano had begun to play extremely well with the tall Swede earlier in the season, but unfortunately fell victim to an undiagnosed heart condition, and continues to recover away from the training ground. Our best wishes for the wantaway Italian international from Culès everywhere.
Predicted Starting XI: Abbiati, Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonini, Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf, Antonio Nocerino, Urby Emanuelson, Zlatan Ibrahimov, Pato
The San Siro can be an intimidating venue on European nights, a fiery cauldron of flares and banners that descend down the terraces in waves. That being said, Barcelona aren’t easily intimidated, and if defensive shortcomings from match day one can be excised with the return of the two big Catalans in front of Valdès then things could go quite differently. The Blaugrana are a dominant force to be reckoned with, one that may use the ageing legs of players like Alessandro Nesta to their fullest advantage. A Barcelona team with revenge in their hearts can be a terrifying thing.
AC Milan 1-2 Barcelona
Photo: Getty Images