Barcelona vs AC Milan | Tuesday 12 March | Camp Nou | 21:45
Undeniably the glamour fixture of the Round of 16 sees a combined eleven European Cups thrown into a tumultuous encounter at the Nou Camp, where Barcelona will be looking to overturn a 2-goal deficit over AC Milan. Scenes from the San Siro two weeks back must have reignited memories of the epic 1989 European Cup victory for Milan supporters, where a much-vaunted Cruyff-era Barcelona were systematically dismantled by the Italian giants. But Milan should be warned, if ever there was a beast to fear when wounded, Barcelona would be right on the top of the list. They will not give up their tenuous grip on the vainglorious title of ‘greatest team ever’ without the fight of their lives.
To Win (90mins)
AC Milan 15/2
Barcelona sit a full thirteen points clear of bitter rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, but such is the skewed significance invested in European competition that they know that elimination from European football’s major club competition will represent a failed campaign. This has been further exacerbated by their recent Classico defeats, which serve to taint their perceived La Liga dominance in what is undeniably the most depressingly predictable two-horse race in world football. Barcelona won quite convincingly on the weekend against struggling Deportivo La Coruna and will be hoping that this could represent something of a swing in the club’s broader momentum.
Barca’s fullback Jordi Alba stated that he was extremely confident that Barcelona will progress and it is this type of fighting spirit that the Catalans will need for Tuesday night. It is very rare that Barca find themselves in such a precarious position and the fact that they have to take AC Milan on from the first instant really does not suit their very particular skill sets, but rather perfectly mimics the Milan blueprint for an emphasis on counter-attacking football. Barcelona, as a side, are generally more aesthetically pleasing than brutally clinical; they enjoy playing with their food while Tuesday will demand utter primacy of attack.
That is not to say Barcelona are incapable of absurd brilliance. They obviously have the effervescent Lionel Messi, who has now scored 40 goals this season in La Liga. He looked especially ineffective in Milan and will be looking towards a performance that can reinstate his name into the consciousness of some who doubt his status as the greatest player in the world. Iniesta and Xavi will be pivotal in regulating possession while perhaps the most crucial players on the field for Barcelona will be Jordi Alba and Dani Alves. They will need to penetrate on the flanks more as Milan will congest the middle of the park, as they did in the first leg. Busquets will have to protect his backline from the potential counter-attacking threat that Milan offer, as Pedro will look to have a more influential game and perhaps stake a claim to the form of colloquial immortality generally reserved for Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. Perhaps the width that Sanchez offers with his pace could be an option for the Catalans.
Barcelona have left themselves a real mountain to climb after their anaemic display in Milan and playing into Milan’s natural game plan of absorption (coupled with the hard-earned stereotype of Italian clubs’ propensity to hold leads) will pose significant threat to a Barcelona side whose lustre of invincibility has taken a large hit in recent weeks.
Allegri has managed to fashion what has come to be seen as an unfashionable team into one capable of beating any European side on their night. Strangely enough, the general optimism surrounding Milan can be traced to the acquisition of bad-boy Mario Balotelli from Manchester City. It served to encapsulate a swagger and ambition in a club whose identity needed a facelift. Obviously he is cup-tied for the game, but the sight of him celebrating in the crowd during the first fixture was perhaps one of the most powerful representations of the change at the club.
Milan’s 2-0 away win against Genoa on the weekend has seen them move above Napoli into second place in the Serie A and indicates the general improvement of the club. They will be confident that they can choke Barcelona in the first half and perhaps exploit the space on offer when Barcelona chase the necessary goals. They know that if they score one, Barcelona will need four, which poses a huge problem for the giants. Milan’s natural inclination to sit back and absorb is perfectly suited to this fixture, which should get them through to the quarter-finals. A tremendous night for Milan.
VERDICT: Barcelona 3/10
Milan will score a goal at some time, perhaps through El Shaarawy, and this will push Barca to chase the game even more. A Barca win, but Milan to progress. For a little extra value, I’ll also be looking at Both Teams To Score at 7/10.
Written by Damien Kayat for @Hollywoodbets.