League position would suggest that AC Milan aren't even in the top three teams in Italy, let alone close to competing with the world's best side. With a lengthy injury list, things could get messy.
As coach of AC Milan, Massimiliano Allegri has faced Barcelona four times. He’s won none. Perhaps not the most optimistic of statistics for rossoneri fans ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League meet at the San Siro. But, while Allegri’s Milan may never have beaten Barça, they’ve only lost to them twice, and while this current Milan squad is often written off as the worst in recent memory, their domestic resurgence of late has eased the early season pressure. Unfortunately, they have several key players unavailable.
It’s fairly easy to predict how Allegri is going to set his side up, and that is with the principal aim of soaking up pressure before looking to counter quickly. They did this successfully the last time the sides met in Milan almost a year ago, when a compact 4-3-1-2 limited Barcelona’s chances in a goalless draw. Had it not been for some profligate finishing -- mainly thanks (or no thanks) to Robinho -- they could’ve even won the game. There are a few differences in the personnel and formation from the clash at the San Siro in 2012, though the basic idea will likely be the same.
This year, despite the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimović, the addition of Stephan El Shaarawy might mean Milan are actually more suited to hurting Barça on the counter. The forward has been struggling with a knee injury ahead of this game, though there is hope he’ll recover in time to play a part. If he does, he’s sure to be a key part of Milan’s strategy. Allegri has shifted from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-3 this season, moving the attacking focus from the centre to out wide, with El Shaarawy tending to operate on the left. Il Faraone represents a quick counter-attacking threat, dribbling inside on his stronger foot. Should he get in behind the notoriously offensive right-back Dani Alves, he’s liable to cause problems.
However, where exactly El Shaarawy will be positioned depends a lot on whether Allegri opts to start Giampaolo Pazzini up front, in the absence of the cup-tied Mario Balotelli. Pazzini's clearly not as talented as Balotelli, and doesn't have anywhere near the technical ability on the ball to bring other players into play as the January arrival. What he does have is a reasonably good scoring record this season, netting ten times in all competitions. Playing him -- thereby allowing El Shaarawy his favoured position on the left -- is almost certainly a better solution than moving El Shaarawy central with the ever inconsistent Kevin-Prince Boateng in his place.
Boateng is in a run-off with young M'Baye Niang for a position on the right of the attacking trident, which represents another selection dilemma for Allegri. Boateng's tendency to drift inside could give him an advantage, helping Milan to link play in attack while adding to the numbers in midfield when defending. He'd be less effective at exploiting the space in behind Jordi Alba than Niang, but adds power and provides a tactical alternative -- as well as experience -- that the Frenchman doesn't have.
Of course, if El Shaarawy is the key, a lot will hang on whether Milan can get the ball to him at all. That's where Riccardo Montolivo comes into play. His distribution from midfield will prove to be vital in trying to instigate quick counter-attacks from deep, though he'll have to be strong when Milan aren't in possession, too. Last year captain Massimo Ambrosini was responsible for playing in the centre of midfield, with the captain marshalling his teammates superbly. Montolivo's a bit more fragile defensively, and could be a weak link when Milan aren't on the ball. And that will, of course, be the majority of the match.
Originally, Montolivo was expected to be flanked by Antonio Nocerino and Mathieu Flamini -- two industrious box-to-box midfielders. But, both have withdrawn with injury, picking up muscle problems in the final training session, leaving Milan's midfield in a severely compromised position. Both players' relentless running would have been an important asset both defensively and supplementing numbers on the counter-attack, and while a like-for-like -- if not as gifted -- ready-made replacement comes in the shape of Sulley Muntari, the third central midfield spot is a problem position. It could even see Ambrosini return. While il capitano did well in this fixture last year, he has a tendency to be a complete liability, having been booked eight times in 14 Serie A games this season -- a disciplinary record to rival Mark van Bommel.
Alternatively, Boateng could drop into a midfield three, with M'Baye Niang starting on the right wing. Whether KPB has the tactical discipline to keep out a Barça in full flow remains to be seen. It may just be that Ambrosini, who would sit deep at the centre of the midfield -- thereby reducing some pressure on Montolivo, too -- would be the lesser of two evils. Silvio Berlusconi has expressed his desire to see Lionel Messi man-marked, though his defensive strategies are probably as sensible as his late-night parties, and Milan's midfield may as well go chasing shadows for an hour and a half, instead. Denying him room to work as a unit will be of paramount importance. For this, Boateng may not be the safest option available.
Unfortunately, Milan's defence this season has been terrifyingly porous, not helped by their lengthy injury list. Aside from Flamini and Nocerino, they're without their best defensive midfielder, Nigel De Jong, among others. Despite El Shaarawy providing some slight hope, Milan are pinning a lot of responsibility on one man. With a full strength team they may have had a chance. With an unfamiliar and weakened midfield combination against a side who require such tactical discipline and unity, it's hard to be optimistic.
For more on the Rossoneri, head over to The AC Milan Offside.