The Champions League is not so different from the Buddhist notion of Karma. Like a cosmic cycle of cause and effect, no past deed goes unnoticed by the footballing universe. This must surely be worrying for Zlatan Ibrahimovic as he prepares to suit up against his former teammates on Wednesday evening, as AC Milan play host to defending champions FC Barcelona in the first leg of their quarter-final match-up. The normally abrasive Swede has apparently been taught how to speak to the press of late, managing a quote that doesn’t mention himself: “We have to stop Barcelona, not Messi, in the same way that Barça will have to stop Milan“. Can it be that Ibra has learned both humility and team spirit in one go? I find it doubtful.
Barcelona travel to Milan at a time of critical importance for the club. Now only six points behind league leaders Real Madrid, the Catalans will be looking for vital away goals Wednesday evening before turning their attention to Saturday’s match against Bilbao. And, speaking of critical moments, it wouldn’t be an important match without some shameless self-promotion from somebody. Surprisingly Ibrahimovic has failed in his usual role thus far, but luckily former club president Joan Laporta has stepped in and come to the rescue. Speaking to Italian paper La Repúbblica, Laporta tipped current coach Guardiola as the club’s next president. While not self-promotion in the strictest sense, this is a clear back of the hand to current president and former rival Sandro Rosell at a time when the rift between the club’s hierarchy and the coach appears to be growing. One can only imagine the grin on Laporta’s face.
Guardiola finds himself without either of his preferred left backs for the trip to Italy, with Eric Abidal set to undergo a liver transplant in the coming days and Adriano ruled out through injury. I suspect that this means Puyol will be slotting in at the left back role, with Mascherano and Piquè sandwiched between the captain and Dani Alves. Suspended for the game against Mallorca, Alves should be well rested and in his usual fine form.
In the midfield we’ll most likely see Xavi, Fàbregas and Busquets. I’m having a tough time deciding if we’ll see Iniesta in the midfield and Fàbregas in more of a forward position, but the service the former Arsenal man has been providing to Messi has just been too good to waste him up front. Speaking of up front, let’s all agree that Messi will start alongside Alexis Sánchez and Iniesta. See, isn’t it easier when we don’t argue?
Thus we arrive at the AC Milan line-up, which is riddled with injuries and suspensions. A stroke of luck (or poor coaching depending on whom you speak to) sees Thiago Silva out with a thigh strain, having gone off injured during Milan’s 2-1 win over Roma on the weekend. The young Brazilian is a wall in defence and scored the equalizing goal in the first encounter between the two teams in September, so his absence will be a serious blow to the Italian back line. Former Blaugrana player Mark Van Bommel misses out through suspension, while striker Alexander Pato is off to Atlanta to receive care for a recurring injury for which nobody seems able to pinpoint a cause. Finally, Ignazio Abate and Alexander Merkel will also find themselves on the sideline come Wednesday, so expect to see a few surprises.
In front of keeper Abbiati, I think we’ll see former Barcelona left back Zambrotta alongside Philippe Mexès, Alessandro Nesta and Djamel Mesbah. There is plenty to be said for this back four, but not all of it is positive. Nesta is returning from injury, and while his experience and talent is immense the defender recently celebrated his 36th birthday and does not have the speed he once did. Djamel Mesbah has put in a string of poor performances as of late, and had a torrid time against Arsenal in the second leg of the last round. Turned inside out at will by the speedy Theo Walcott, Dani Alves will no doubt be relishing his matchup on the right side of the pitch.
In midfield, I think experience will win out for Massimo Allegri, with Clarence Seedorf, Massim Ambrosini and Antonio Nocerino tasked with preventing Messi from skirting the edge of the box in his usual fashion. Scorer of a fine individual goal against the Catalans in the group stage, Kevin-Prince Boateng should be the link between the holding midfielders and the strikers. Speaking of strikers, this part of the line-up should be pretty straight forward considering the absence of both Robinho and Alexander Pato; though Robinho did train with the squad on Monday. Zlatan Ibrahimovic should line up next to young starlet Stephan El Shaarawy, possessor of an outrageous-yet-somehow-unsurprising hair style. The son of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, El Shaarawy is lightning quick, and cannot be overlooked. Guilty of missing a golden chance against Arsenal at the Emirates stadium, he none the less poses a real threat, and cannot be underestimated.
Well then, we’ve arrived at our match prediction, haven’t we? Both teams will take to the pitch in excellent form Wednesday evening, although AC Milan are beset with injuries at nearly every position. Aside from the vacancies at left back the Catalans arrive in Milan relatively healthy, with even Ibrahim Afellay taken along for the trip despite not being given medical clearance. With a bench that should include Thiago, Keita, Cuenca and Pedro, Guardiola will have a plethora of talent at his disposal should his starting line-up need a boost.
Still, worries remain. The Catalans continue to be appalling at defending set pieces, with a fairly tall Milan side no doubt intent on exploiting their height advantage. Ibrahimovic has been in a ruthless mood on the pitch as of late, scoring two against Roma on Saturday, and has something to prove against his former side. Can the Rossoneri overcome a slew of injuries and take a first leg advantage to the Camp Nou?
I don’t think so.
FC Barcelona Predicted Starting XI: Valdés, Dani Alves, Mascherano, Piquè, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas, Messi, Iniesta, Sánchez
AC Milan Predicted Starting XI: Abiatti, Zambrotta, Nesta, Mexès, Mesbah, Seedorf, Ambrosini, Nocerino, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Ibrahimovic, El Shaarawy
AC Milan 1-2 FC Barcelona
Image credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini