The AC Milan that was drawn into the Champions League Round of 16 against Atletico Madrid might be a very different side by the time they actually face last year's Copa del Rey winners. It wouldn't be stunning to see the Rossoneri make wholesale changes to management and the squad between now and mid-February. They're already bottom-half of the table in Serie A, and things could get worse when they face AS Roma on Monday.
Atleti, meanwhile, look to be in a genuine title race with Barcelona and stormed through the group stage of Champions League with ease. Unless something very drastic happens in January, Diego Simeone's side will enter this tie as heavy favorites.
Milan are struggling in the league, currently in 12th and having won just one of their last eight games (and that was against Serie A's bottom side). Yet somehow Massimiliano Allegri managed to guide this rag-tag bunch of players into the next round, the only Serie A side to advance.
While Milan might not be the side every top-finishing team is hoping to get (that honor likely belongs to Zenit or Olympiakos) it's hard to see them beating Atletico Madrid ... unless a questionable decision leads to Mario Balotelli converting a penalty, of course. The Rossoneri scored just eight goals in the group stages, including one of those penalties, although two of those goals were actually scored by the opposition. Their anemic attacking threat combined with their defensive lapses takes the sting right out of these devils.
Key player: Mario Balotelli.
Yeah, no obscure references here. Despite a downturn in goals scored this season, and a couple injuries, and the fact that he still can't control his temper, oh and the way he looked totally uninterested in the final group stage match, SuperMario remains Milan's best. Which just might say more about the rest of the squad than the young forward.
The "other" team in Madrid are doing a fine job of tripping their more well known city rivals and interjecting themselves into the conversation as one of the best teams in Spain. Diego Simeone has built a solid roster with loaded with attacking talent and players capable of playing tough gritty defense.
While Group G was easily one of the weakest collection of teams in this season's group stages, Atleti did what a good team is supposed to do and dominated. They joined Real Madrid as one of only two teams with 16 points, going undefeated. There will no doubt be questions about how Atleti will handle one of the top teams in Europe but last season's Copa del Rey triumph over Real Madrid should be an indicator that they won't fear anyone who's put in their path.
Key player: Diego Costa
Whomever ends up having to deal with Los Colchoneros will be smart to try and find a way to slow down Diego Costa. The fiery Brazilian about to be Spaniard, at least in international play terms, is one of the most explosive players in La Liga. He's a fiery competitor with lightning quick pace who puts the ball in the back of the net a lot. He's the team's leading scorer in UCL with four and in the league with 15 so far this season.
Center vs. Center. AC Milan's signature has been a strong center of midfield for more than the last decade, but it's been a less than spectacular season for that portion of the rossoneri squad. They're still a decent collection of players, yes, but they're not the possession-dominating, ball-winning, dominant force of old. Gabi, Tiago Mendes and Mario Suarez have performed very well for Atleti this season, but they're certainly not as strong as Atleti's forward and defense groups. If Milan is going to win the tie, it will be won here.