The battle for the top spot in Group H is sure to be a cracker. I analyze what could be the winning strategy of each team in this clash of titans
All eyes will be on the San Siro this Wednesday, as the European Champs Barcelona take on Scudetto winnners AC Milan. The Spaniards look favorites in this intriguing showdown, but don't write off the Rossoneri, who have the bonus of being at home and having several players back who were injured for the first leg, which ended in a 2-2 draw. The Blaugrana will extend their Group H lead to five points if they grab the three points, while Milan can go top if they win. And with both teams facing relatively easy competition in the next match, this match will likely decide who finishes first in the group. Both teams have already secured their qualification for the Round of 16, but winning the group will mean facing easier competition in the next round. I look into the keys for the match for each team.
Barcelona's Winning Strategy
Shut Down Ibrahimovic
The Swede will be Milan's biggest threat in attack, and could rip apart the La Liga winners' defense if not payed enough attention to. Of course, Barcelona will certainly be wary of his presence and will do their best to keep him at bay. Good news for Barca is that one of Ibra's biggest criticisms is his poor performance in Europe. The bad news for Barca is that this season he has seemed to put an end to this bad spell of luck in UEFA competitions. He has already bagged three goals in his three appearances with the Diavolo. The 30 year old will be pivotal to Milan's attack, and if he continues his good form on Wednesday Barcelona are in trouble.
Avoid Being Punished on the Counter Attack
Barcelona will obviously have a larger share of possession than the Italians. The Blaugrana controlled about 70% of possession in the first leg at the Camp Nou. This might be an advantage at some points for Milan, as they will look to exploit Barcelona's attack minded approach on the counter. One of Barcelona's weaknesses is its lack of pace in defence, especially with Dani Alves set to miss out on Wednesday. This weakness was taken advantage of by Milan in the first 15 minutes of the first leg, notably by Pato who couldn't be tamed by Barca's slower defenders. Pato and co will look to exploit this weakness once again, often waiting to attack on quick breaks when Barcelona eventually lose possession.
Focus Attacks on the Wings
The Rossoneri have two of the finest centre backs in the world, Sandro Nesta and Thiago Silva. Both were outstanding in the 2-2 draw, especially Nesta. The full backs, however, aren't quite as great, particularly the left back position. Right back Ignazio Abate is usually solid in defense, though he's better going forward. The left back position is up for grabs; it could be Taiwo, Zambrotta, Antonini, or even Bonera, though the latter is unlikely. Taiwo is most talented of these, but he hasn't quite settled at Milan yet. He has performed well in Europe though. Zambrotta would be first choice a few years ago, but his age is against him now. Antonini I feel wouldn't be a great option. He's decent going forward, but usually isn't very conscience of his defensive duties, which could be very costly against the lethal Barcelona attack. And Bonera... well nevermind. Barcelona could definitely take advantage of this weakness in Milan's backline with their talented strikers. It may be a better option than trying to break through the formidable duo of Silva and Nesta.
Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Mascherano, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Sanchez; Fabregas; Messi, Villa.
Guardiola will surely field his strongest possible line-up against the Scudetto holders after that 2-2 draw in September. Both Dani Alves and Iniesta are unavailable, otherwise they would be in this line-up.
Milan's Winning Strategy
Use Pato's Speed
Pato showed how deadly he is back in September when he scored after 26 seconds, ripping apart the Barcelona back four. There are very few with pace that equals the young Brazilian's. If Milan continue to feed him the ball, the Spanish Champions will find it difficult to contain the former Internacional striker. Like I said earlier, Barcelona's backline isn't exactly the speediest. It should be a good test for Barca's back line.
The Rossoneri do have one obvious advantage, and that is size. Milan's rough and tough midfielders need to terrorize the little Spaniards. The key is not to be too physical, in order to avoid what happened in El Clasico last season. The last thing Milan needs is to be a man down. A midfield trio of Nocerino-Ambrosini/Van Bommel-Aquilani is likely to be Allegri's choice (obviously only one of Ambrosini and MVB will play). This line-up can cause some problems for Barcelona's undersized midfielders and strikers.
Keep High Intensity
Milan were doing a great job of pressing and countering for the first 15 minutes of the clash in September. After that, unfortunately, the Rossoneri dropped the intensity and quickness of play and opted to just put 11 men behind the ball and hope for the best. If Milan had kept that same level of pressure for the entire match it's likely the Italians would have an even better chance of not conceding. They possibly could have even come out with a win. This will be vital in Wednesday's encounter. Maybe a better approach for Allegri would be to tell his players not to go out so intensely (still intense enough of course) in order to have energy to press Barcelona the entire match. If they do so, they could very well keep a clean sheet. Then scoring one goal would be enough for the three points and the top of the group.
Abbiati; Abate, Nesta, Silva, Zambrotta; Aquilani, Van Bommel, Nocerino; Robinho; Ibrahimovic, Pato
Allegri will focus on being solid at the back, which is why I think he'll choose the experienced Zambrotta over unsettled Taiwo. He'll certainly field a hardworking midfield, which will try to like I said "bully" Barcelona. I have a feeling I may be wrong about the attacking trio, though this is definitely how I think Allegri should line them up. Seedorf might be played in place of Robinho or Pato, in which case Robinho would be played next to Ibra.
This will surely make for an exciting game, with both teams determined to win. Expect goals a plenty, with both teams' strikers stonger than the opposing teams' defense. Watch AC Milan take on Barcelona Wednesday at 7:45 P.M. GMT/1:45 P.M. EST.