Get set for Camp Nou fireworks

Tonight’s clash of the heavyweights at Camp Nou is set up to be a classic.

You could have gotten good odds against a blank score-sheet when Barcelona and Milan met last week. Barcelona were odds on, the draw was 5/2, 0-0 was 12/1. Football is usually all about goals, but it was a good result for those looking forward to a second helping of drama.

Between them these two sides have scored 224 times this season. Milan are the top scorers in Italy, Barcelona have averaged three goals a game in their 48 matches so far. They are even stronger favourites to go through now than they were last week, with Lionel Messi heavily backed to score and set a new Champions League record for the season (he currently has 12) as we seem to move inexorably towards the expected Spanish showdown in Munich.

It is hard to see Milan keeping Barcelona out for two matches in-a-row. Coming into this tie they had the worst defensive record of any team in the last eight. But despite their patchy away record, this is a side that has a habit of rising to the big occasion.

Barcelona had two penalty claims in the first leg, but they also could have been 2-0 down early on with cooler finishing from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho.

Milan have given a good impression of a casualty ward this season and they are still depleted, without Thiago Silva at the back and Mark Van Bommel in midfield, although that could be a blessing given his tendency to see red.

Keeping their shape and heads will be a huge challenge tonight. Inter just managed it with 10 men in that dramatic semi-final two years ago and there have been strange echoes of that encounter in the build-up to this game.

Back then Barcelona were unable to fly to Milan because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. This time Barcelona were unable to travel back from Milan until Friday because of strike action in Spain.

Milan don’t have Inter’s discipline, yet their veterans Alessandro Nesta and Massimo Ambrosini produced a very effective impression in the first leg. For all Barcelona’s mesmerising passing and possession they seemed short of a striker in attack.

Messi was closed down and when he did get free Christian Abbiati pulled off a wonderful save at full stretch. Alexis Sanchez was below par — he did better in Saturday’s match against Bilbao — and the substitute Pedro misfired again. Barcelona miss David Villa, as much for his ability to create space as for his goals. Despite their reputation, and extravagant scoring record, they have still drawn a blank four times this season.

One surprise in the first leg was the absence of Cesc Fabregas. Too cautious of Pep Guardiola perhaps, but Fabregas was also rested on Saturday so it seems his back problem is more serious than was first thought.

Without him, Barcelona ended up with three ‘enforcers’ in midfield – Seydou Keita and Sergio Busquets with Javier Mascherano moving forward from central defence. It gave them more muscle in the contest for midfield control but very little width, making it a lot easier for the Italians to stay compact.

Milan’s missing man in the first leg was Alexandre Pato, dispatched to a specialist clinic in Atlanta to assess a chronic thigh injury that has kept him out of the side for much of the season. He’s in his fifth year with the club now but despite a good scoring record he remains an enigma.

It seemed he was about to move to Paris St Germain in January until the transfer was vetoed by Milan president Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s daughter Barbara, also a Milan director, is in a relationship with the player, although she says she deliberately kept out of the negotiations.

Whether Pato is fully fit must be in doubt, and transatlantic journeys are hardly the best preparation, but Robinho was so peripheral in the first leg that Massimiliano Allegri must be tempted to make a change. It was Pato who scored inside a minute in the group stage match at Camp Nou that ended 2-2. A similar contribution now would be priceless.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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