When the Champions League draw was made, this tie looked very sad for AC Milan. In the not-so-recent past, this would have been a fairly even matchup, if not heavily weighted towards Milan. Now, Atletico Madrid not only has better talent than its adversary, but a style of play that it's not well-equipped to deal with and a manager much more polished than the man standing 10 feet away from him.
That's not to say that Milan is a bad team, or Clarence Seedorf is a bad manager. There's a lot to like about Milan, who has some decent building blocks for the future, and Seedorf, who came into an impossible situation and is attempting to play a more ambitious style of football than his predecessor. But Milan has a lot of slow players and is adapting to a new system. Atleti, on the other hand, has a bunch of rabid wolverines who can sprint for 90 minutes and are as well-drilled as they are athletic and tenacious.
Milan almost got away with a decent result at the San Siro thanks to the individual brilliance of Adel Taarabt, who was somehow the best player on the pitch in the first leg. His loan move from Queens Park Rangers has proven to be a very adept one, and it'll probably get made permanent in the summer. Considering that he had the game of his life in the first leg, at home, and his team still lost, a repeat performance will probably be required this time around.
There's also the matter of Milan's missing players. Nigel De Jong, who was excellent in the first leg, and Andrea Poli, who was more useful defensively than the average attacking midfielder, are probably both out for this game. The less-active and less-athletic Riccardo Montolivo will probably take De Jong's place, while the options to fill Poli's shoes are less than ideal with Stephan El Shaarawy out and Keisuke Honda ineligible.
Yes, Milan has enough talent to make this fun, but why would anyone expect it to? This is a horrible matchup for the Rossoneri.
First leg score
AC Milan 0-1 Atletico Madrid. It looked like Milan was going to squeak out a draw until Diego Costa's header went in.
Things continue to go well on the injury front for Atletico Madrid, who has some sort of magic that keeps all of its players healthy. Tiago, who has been out for a bit, is now back in full training. The only player missing is Javi Manquillo.
AC Milan has no huge problems, though a few players could miss Tuesday's game with minor issues. Stephan El Shaarawy is still out, while it's yet to be determined whether or not Andrea Poli will be able to play. Nigel De Jong is also likely to miss out. Mario Balotelli returned from a shoulder injury this weekend and should start. Keisuke Honda is cup-tied and Riccardo Montolivo is suspended.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Milan's midfield vs. Diego Costa and Raul Garcia - Yes, Milan's midfield vs. Atleti's forwards. What makes Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone's system in general is the incredible work rate of his forwards. It's the reason that David Villa, for all his quality, only starts select matches. When Garcia starts instead of Villa, Diego Costa does a bit more of a regular striker's job, but he'll still drop deep to find the ball and press defensively quite a bit. It'll be up to Milan's midfielders to stop them from starting attacks from deep positions and to avoid giving away the ball while under pressure from the Atleti forwards.
Adel Taarabt vs. Felipe and Mario Suarez - The lone bright spot in an otherwise dull Milan team in the first leg of this tie was Adel Taarabt. Many laughed when he made his move to Milan in January, but it appears to have sparked a change in attitude that finally has his work rate matching his raw talent. He likes to drift inside quite a bit, so it'll be just as much on Mario Suarez as Felipe to contain him.
Would you bet against this Atletico Madrid team against anyone right now? Maybe if they were playing Bayern Munich. Against AC Milan with an away goal? They're not going out. See you in the quarterfinals, Rojiblancos. 1-0 Atleti.