Milan ready to rile Barca again

Barcelona take on Milan at a damp San Siro for the fourth time in two years this evening.

Milan ready to rile Barca again

It is not their favourite venue.

Including that traumatic semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s Inter, when Iceland’s spewing volcano forced them to travel by road, Barcelona have lost twice and won once in their last five San Siro appearances.

Their most recent match, back in February, resulted in a shock 2-0 defeat. Their coach Tito Vilanova was in hospital receiving treatment for cancer and his deputy Jordi Roura seemed hypnotised by the occasion. Milan coach Max Allegri organised a defensive masterclass, with a midfield screen that disrupted and nullified Barcelona’s passing game, especially the link between Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Neither Daniel Alves nor Jordi Alba was able to make any impact on the flanks and Lionel Messi ended up a forlorn figure on the right of the attack. For all their possession, Barcelona managed just one shot on target, and from long range at that.

Mario Balotelli missed that game, having previously played for Man City, and his involvement this time has been in doubt. Despite familiar disciplinary problems, both on and off the pitch, Milan have been working hard to get him fit for even part of the game. His presence as the focal point in attack gives Milan an edge they otherwise lack. He also has a crucial knack of scoring late goals, and winning late penalties, as in Amsterdam three weeks ago.

That point against Ajax definitely swung the contest for second place in the group Milan’s way.

But bar their 0-0 draw at Osasuna on Saturday, Barcelona have been as strong as usual so far this season. It was a result that will give Milan some hope, but this was the first time in 21 months that Barcelona failed to score in a league game, and although Osasuna are third from bottom in La Liga, they are one of those sides that raise their game against the top clubs. Barcelona were also without Messi, rested in advance of the Champions League and also in view of their next match, against Real Madrid.

Barcelona’s new coach, Gerardo Martino, generally known as Tata, is an Argentinian who was appointed partly on Messi’s recommendation. That raised a few eyebrows at the time, but it has not exempted Messi from the systematic rotation of players that Martino has introduced. It may also be that Messi himself now recognises that he is not superhuman. Under previous coaches he was playing virtually all the time. But he has only just returned from three weeks on the sidelines and suffered six minor injuries over the past six months.

Messi and Neymar will surely start tonight, probably with Alexis Sanchez, whose form has at last been justifying the €37m fee that brought him from Udinese. The defence is also fairly predictable, with Adriano in place of the injured Alba and Javier Mascherano in the middle — Carles Puyol played his first full game on Saturday after seven months’ absence. The midfield is less certain: it seems likely that Cesc Fabregas will draw the short straw.

For Milan this game has become a test of their status as a big club. Back in eighth place in Serie A, sandwiched between Atalanta and Torino, they are already 13 points behind league leaders Roma, and eight adrift of Juventus and Napoli who look like being the other contenders. So they have to try and assert themselves in the competition they like to see as “their own”. The defence is their worry, and they no longer have the strength of Kevin-Prince Boateng nor the experience of Massimo Ambrosini in midfield which enabled them outplay Barcelona in February.

Messi they know of course, Sanchez too from his time at Udinese. But this is the first Italian outing for the other member of Barcelona’s attacking trio. Neymar in the past might have signed for Milan. Now he lines up against Robinho, his former hero at Santos: a little Brazilian contest that should add extra spice to an intriguing game.

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