It's tough to win matches without a midfield, but that is what AC Milan will be asked to do when they head to London for the second leg of their UEFA Champions League tie with Tottenham Hotspur. That's not to say that Spurs are in the best of shape either as they face the possibility to playing without Gareth Bale in what is sure to be a highly contentious and intense match. Whoever steps on to the field for either team, Milan will be charged with coming back from a goal down at White Hart Lane after a 1-0 loss at home in the first leg.
A late Peter Crouch goal handed Spurs the victory at the San Siro, but the goal was a result of Aaron Lennon's long run to set the lanky Crouch up for an easy finish. Lennon supplying the winning goal was only appropriate in a match where he was dangerous from the opening whistle, although being beaten on the wings has become somewhat of a common occurrence for Italian teams in the Champions League.
Narrow formations are the norm in Serie A, but in the Champions League the lack of width from Italian clubs has been exposed, and AC Milan were exposed in the first leg. Lennon has his way on the right side of the midfield and even without Bale, Tottenham were able to create chances from the left with Steven Pienaar. Shutting down the wings or at least slowing down the Spurs wing play will be a necessity if the Italians are to come back from a goal down, but they'll have to do so with a depleted midfield.
Running Out of Options
When Milan and Spurs met three weeks ago at the San Siro, Milan had only one midfielder, 19-year-old Alexander Merkel, on their bench. Mark van Bommel and Urby Emanuelson are cup tied (as is Antonio Cassano), and Andrea Pirlo was injured. Those four players will miss the second leg as well, and Gennaro Gattuso is suspended after losing his head and accumulating too many yellow cards as well as headbutting Spurs assistant coach Joe Jordan. The one positive for the team is that Kevin-Prince Boateng may return from an ankle injury, although his status is still up the air.
With so many of their midfielders out, Milan will be limited in options. Mathieu Flamini and Clarence Seedorf are almost certain bets to start and if healthy enough to Boateng would likely join them. If he is not healthy then Merkel would likely have to be thrown into the fire. Even with Boateng though Milan will be facing an uphill battle. Seedorf had a poor showing at the San Siro and was substituted early as the center of the park was dominated by the Tottenham central midfield pairing of Sandro and Wilson Palacios. With Luka Modric several weeks removed from his appendix surgery he will be able to start in the second leg, only making things more difficult on the visitors.
Tottenham will be hoping to have Bale in the starting XI on Wednesday, although the most recent comments from manager Harry Redknapp suggest he will only be on the bench. Even so, a healthy Modric and Rafael van der Vaart alone are an improvement from the first leg when the two teamed up to combine for 90 minutes. Bale would be the real gamebreaker for Spurs though, providing deadly pace on the left to Aaron Lennon's blistering feet on the right to exploit the narrow Milanese again.
The Right Choices, From the Beginning
In the first leg, Milan were severely outplayed on the wings, but the match did change some in the second half when Alexandre Pato came on. Playing Seedorf in an advanced midfield role backfired in the first half and is unlikely to make an appearance this time around with a three-man front line is far more likely with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Pato all up front.
If nothing else the threat of the three frontmen for Milan will cause Spurs to drop deeper and give Milan a chance in the midfield, but Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Pato are far more than just a threat. The trio are deadly and could give Tottenham serious trouble, especially considering the shoddy defending Spurs showed in Sunday's 3-3 draw to Wolves that isn't too rare in North London. An early moment of magic could turn the tie on its head and shift the pressure to Spurs in front of what will undoubtedly by a charged up and intense home crowd.
That crowd will likely direct the bulk of its venom at Flamini, a former Arsenal player who is lucky to even be available for selection after avoiding a red card in the first leg for his terrible tackle on Vedran Corluka. With the crowd pushing Spurs on, they will likely try to replicate their dominance out wide, but with a healthy Modric and van der Vaart, the home side will be able to play better through the middle that they could in the first leg.
Tottenham will also have the benefit of a couple strikers who showed life on Sunday in a year where the Tottenham strikers have been a goal wastebasket. Jermain Defoe notched a brace on Sunday and nearly made it a hat trick when his late attempt clattered against the post. The Englishman will also be going for a milestone as he tries to notch his 100th goal for Spurs, but he isn't the only striker who showed well on Sunday. Roman Pavlyuchenko also scored a fantastic goal to lift his spirits, although stunning goals followed by lazy performances are the norm for the Russian.
With a one-goal lead and a home match, Spurs are undoubtedly the favorites to go through to the quarterfinals, but any team with questionable defending can be had and Milan will be looking to capitalize on that. A depleted midfield will make things tougher on Milan, as will the relative health of Tottenham so Spurs look the best bet to go on, but Milan have the quality up front to get a magical goal and change the tie.