AC Milan go to the Emirates tomorrow night with one foot already in the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League. Their 4-0 win at the San Siro two weeks ago seems to have done the job.
Arsenal will however take solace from the fact that on two occasions recently, Milan have been on the wrong end of outrageous comebacks. In 2004, they were 4-1 up going into the second leg of their Champions League quarter final tie against Deportivo La Coruna, yet somehow managed to capitulate at the Riazor and lost 4-0. More famously though is that night in Istanbul in May 2005 when they seemed to have the Champions League won in 45 minutes, humiliating Liverpool 3-0. The rest, as they say is history.
On both occasions, the comeback has happened away from Milan, so Arsenal will hope that the same can happen in London. Arsenal will also be buoyed by their last two results, a 5-2 win over North London rivals Tottenham Hotspurs, and a more important, yet less impressive, 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield. Confidence will be sky high on the back of these two wins, and they will look to build on that confidence early if they intend to come up with the greatest comeback in Champions League history.
On the other hand however, AC Milan are coming off the back of very impressive results of their own. They managed to hold Juventus to a 1-1 draw last week, and massacred Palermo 4-0 at the Estadio Renza Barbera with relative ease. Their key man in Sicily was Zlatan Ibrahimovich, scoring a 13 minute hatrick in his first game back for Milan after a three game suspension for indiscipline. The Swede will be the man Arsenal will need to handle if they do not want to concede.
Both squads will be heavily depleted in comparison to what we saw at the Estadio Giusseppe Meazza two weeks ago. Arsenal for one look as if they will be missing Mikel Arteta after he suffered a concussion at Anfield. This will be the biggest blow to their squad as Arteta has been the main man linking defence and attack for the Gunners. Adding onto Arteta’s injury is the lack of Thierry Henry, who was instrumental to raising team morale in his short second stint at the club.
Other injury absentees include Abou Diaby, (who picked up an injury (again) on Saturday), Aaron Ramsey, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker, Johan Djourou and Francis Coquelin. Arsenal will also be monitoring knocks picked up by Yossi Benayoun and Kieran Gibbs, though the two will most likely be ready for the tie.
AC Milan’s injury list includes Clarence Seedorf, Alberto Aquilani, Alessandro Nesta and January signing Maximiliano Lopez. Massimo Ambrosini will miss the tie due to suspension as he picked up a yellow card in the first leg. Milan will also be sweating on the fitness of Phillipe Mexes, who failed a late fitness test before Saturday’s game. Sulley Muntari is cup-tied, having already played for Inter Milan in the group stages. Kevin-Prince Boateng is a doubt.
Without the services of Arteta, Arsenal will probably move Tomas Rosicky deeper into midfield. Who Wenger starts in in front of Alex Song and Rosicky is uncertain. He has started Benayoun in that position, but if Benayoun doesn’t make it, he is probably going to do what he did on Saturday and play Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain centrally. Needing to score 5, it is imperative that Wenger puts out an attacking side, not as he did in Milan. He should thus start Gervinho and Theo Walcott wide of Robin Van Persie. Focus should be on attacking from the wings, thus Rosicky and Song should look to keep the ball well and spread it wide to Walcott and Gervinho. Movement from Chamberlain in the center of midfield should also be at its best so as to draw players onto him and leave the wingers with enough space out wide. The wingers should also be able to find Van Persie, who proved on Saturday that all you need to do is find him, he will do the rest.
“From not a lot, he did a lot”
Arsene Wenger commenting on Robin Van Persie after the Liverpool game.
Milan are highly depleted in the center of the pitch. They do however have the option of playing Van Bommel and Nocerino. The rest is a mystery.
In Milan, Massimiliano Allegri replaced the injured Seedorf with Urby Emanuelson. This meant that Emanuelson played on the left of Milan’s narrow diamond midfield. However, since then, Emanuelson has been playing at the attacking base of the diamond (trequartista) in the absence of Boateng. If Boateng misses out again this time round, and with Muntari (cup-tied) and Ambrosini (suspension) unavailable, Allegri will have to think hard about what he wants to do. He has two options.
Allegri could go for an attacking 4-3-3, thus have a midfield three and an attacking three. This would mean putting in Stephan El Shaarawy (or as a huge risk, Alexander Merkel) in from the start to form an attacking trident with Robinho and Ibrahimovich. This however would leave the midfield three a bit exposed as the attacking trident would not help in defending. Onto the second option which involves him keeping the midfield diamond by moving Luca Antonini into the left of the midfield diamond, thus allowing Emmanuelson to continue in his trequartista role. For Allegri to do this, he would need to decide whom he needs to start at left-back. On Saturday, he did bring on January signing Djamel Mesbah at halftime, and he might decide to finally give the 26 year old Algerian left-back his Champions League debut.
Allegri must also hope that Phillip Mexes is fit, for if he isn’t, he might have to start with Daniele Bonera alongside Thiago Silva. If he does start Bonera, then he must hope that Bonera never comes up one on one with Robin Van Persie, as Bonera’s lack of pace may give the Dutchman an upper hand. (Despite dominating against Palermo on Saturday, Milan looked most under threat whenever Fabrizzio Miccoli looked to run at Bonera)
Its a huge ask of Arsenal to turn around a 4-0 handicap. They will have to be defensively organised, ready to attack and play the perfect game. They will also have to hope that Milan have the worst of nights. Scoring may not be a problem for Arsenal; whether they can score five is the problem; whether they can prevent Milan from scoring is another.
Both teams have injuries, and any lineups they put up will be risks. Arsenal, however, I feel, will have the stronger line-up, though Milan’s cushion allows them not to necessarily need a strong one.
Tactically, it will be a wonderful match up, that is if Arsenal look to exploit their width, and Milan try to force them into playing centrally.
As a neutral, I hope Arsenal make a game of it. From a footballing perspective, they really should. Everyone seems to have written them off, but stranger things have happened in football. For the sake of witnessing a memorable match, am not putting it beyond them.
Onto the Emirates then.