After a dip AC Milan are showing signs of a resurgence that should worry a stuttering Arsenal...
There was a groan around the AC Milan camp when the draw for the last sixteen of the Champions League was made.
The Rossoneri have been eliminated at this stage of the tournament three out of four years by English clubs – last year it was Tottenham Hotspur, then Manchester United and previously Arsenal, who are back at the San Siro on Wednesday evening. There they will face a Milan side that been out of sorts over the last month or so but demonstrated the sort of character they are famous for by winning at Udinese at the weekend.
Udinese, who Arsenal dispatched in the qualifying round of this season’s competition, had not lost at the home all season. Milan were missing 13 regulars either through injury or suspension. Coming into that game, Massimiliano Allegri’s men had lost the derby to Inter, fell to defeat to Lazio, drawn at home to Napoli and then lost at home to Juventus in their Italian Cup semi-final first leg. Hardly easy opposition and before that they had remained undefeated since losing at Juventus in October, so despite the recent slip in form there are grounds for optimism for the seven-time European Cup winners.
Continental competition is hotwired into the DNA of the club and everyone is made aware that they are following in a rich tradition where the likes of the Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Paolo Maldini have all lifted the European Cup.
With the injury crisis abating Allegri knows that his side will be stronger going into the second leg
The photographical evidence is displayed in the hallways of the club’s plush training complex at Milanello as a little reminder to the modern generation, and whilst the Serie A title is keenly sought each year, it is the Champions League that really gets the pulses racing for the Rossoneri. With the injury crisis abating Allegri knows that his side will be stronger going into the second leg and the young coach will want to ensure that Arsenal are kept goalless in the first ninety minutes, but this is where he may have some problems and especially along the flanks.
Ever since Marcos Cafu retired and Paolo Maldini moved into the centre of defence in the final years of his glorious career, Milan have found it difficult to unearth even adequate replacements at full-back. The current pairing, Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini, have pace but lack quality and a sure touch; especially true of left-back Antonini who has lost his place to new signing Djamel Mesbah and will more than likely be dropped in place of Gianluca Zambrotta.
Thankfully then, the centre of the defence is patrolled by Thiago Silva who was voted into the UEFA team of the year, and one of the old masters of sweeping up trouble, Alessandro Nesta. Now 35, the former Italy international leaves the athletic Silva to attack the ball while he tidies up at the back.
The defence may creak at times but it is as tough as teak in midfield where Dutch hardman Mark Van Bommel is flanked by Antonio Nocerino and Urby Emanuelson, who provide the leg work.
The defence may creak at times but it is as tough as teak in midfield
That area may fall short of previous Milan midfields but further up the pitch the quality associated with teams of old remains. Kevin Prince Boateng has just returned from a month out with a thigh strain and the former Spurs and Portsmouth man has developed into a vital component in supporting the front-two, though it may be another old Dutch master Clarence Seedorf who starts.
It is the attack that can still drag Milan through their difficult moments and once again the onus will fall on the considerable frame of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has flattered to deceive on too many occasions in Europe.
The big Swede is currently sitting out a three-match ban on the domestic front after slapping a Napoli defender and will be itching to get back into action, having scored four goals in four games in the group stage. Allegri may have finally found a perfect foil for Ibra in the shape of a teenager who will be virtually unknown to anyone outside Italy: Stephan El Shaarawy.
At 19 and in his first season at the club after a summer move from Genoa, the striker whose father is Egyptian, has always been destined to climb to the top, having represented Italy at every level through to the under-21s.
Alexandre Pato may be fit again but has never gelled with Ibra. El Shaarawy possesses the same raw pace, close-control and finishing as the Brazilian, but he has more awareness of what is going on around him and is more eager to bring his striker partner into the action. It was the youngster who led the attack in the win at Udinese where he set up the equaliser and scored the winner, having the previous week caused the Juve backline plenty of problems in the Italian Cup games where he also scored.
The Italian champions may be aging and lacking that true star quality of old, but it could be a young name to look out who puts the Gunners in their place.
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