By Mark Doyle
Beating Barcelona over two legs is one of the most onerous of assignments in today's game, and attempting to do so without several first-team players looks near impossible. This is exactly the scenario AC Milan find themselves in ahead of their Champions League quarter-final showdown with the Blaugrana.
The Rossoneri have been plagued by injuries this season and have had to make do without the services of star players at regular intervals. The fact that they are currently in possession of a four-point lead at the top of Serie A is a testament to their resolve and the strength in depth.
However, it is difficult to foresee Milan getting the better of Barcelona, the reigning world, European and Spanish champions, unless coach Massimiliano Allegri has all of his key men fully fit and available for selection.
At this stage, the 44-year-old Italian would just settle for 'available for selection'. Ahead of Saturday night’s Serie A clash with Roma, the Rossoneri still have some integral members of their first-choice starting lineup sidelined, while others have only just returned to action.
Consequently, the meeting with the Giallorossi at San Siro is of utmost importance for two reasons. Firstly, it represents a final opportunity for the recent returnees to get a much-needed run-out before the visit of the most feared team on the planet. Secondly, it is imperative that those currently carrying knocks get through the game unscathed.
As Goal.com outlines below, Milan can ill afford any more injuries ...
As things stand, Ignazio Abate is set to miss the visit of Barca. The right-back picked up a muscular injury in training last week and it was estimated that he would be out of action for a fortnight, meaning that the first leg is likely to come too soon for him. Abate's near-certain absence is a major blow as the Italy international is Milan’s most reliable full-back, and also a fine attacking outlet on the right flank.
Gianluca Zambrotta’s return in the Coppa Italia clash with Juventus after two months on the sidelines is a boost, though, because his versatility means that he can play on either side of the defence. Furthermore, he is a much more reliable alternative to the defensively susceptible Djamel Mesbah as Luca Antonini’s understudy at left-back.
The news that Alessando Nesta is now back in the mix and expected to feature on the bench against Roma is a tremendous boost for Allegri and his team. The veteran centre-back is nowhere near as quick as he once was, but, as he underlined at Camp Nou in the group stages, his sound positional sense remains as keen as ever.
Nesta’s return could take on extra importance for Milan if the knock which Thiago Silva picked up against Juventus flares up in the coming days. Finally, it is also worth noting that Christian Abbiati has been carrying a few niggles of late and the Rossoneri will be sweating over his fitness as Marco Amelia has not exactly proven himself as a reliable deputy.
Milan's problems with injuries in the centre of the pitch have been well-documented, but things finally seem to be looking up for the Rossoneri. Mark van Bommel's suspension for the first leg aside, Massimiliano Allegri's selection problems in midfield seems to have been eased, at least when it comes to the range of choice.
|THE WORST CASE SCENARIO
Bonera - Mexes - Yepes - Antonini
Aquilani - Ambrosini - Nocerino
El Shaarawy - Emanuelson
Alexander Merkel, who picked up an injury in his first outing for Milan after arriving back from Genoa in January, looks set to miss the Roma game despite initial reports that he would be on the bench on Saturday. Clarence Seedorf, on the other hand, played all 120 minutes of the midweek meeting with Juve, suggesting that he has fully recovered from his recent hamstring trouble.
More importantly, injury-prone midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng is expected to feature against Roma after recovering from his persistent muscular problems. Milan simply do not have a deputy for the Ghanaian, which explains why he was rushed back for the first leg of the last-16 clash with Arsenal.
Urby Emanuelson has been filling in for Boateng in the trequartista role, but the Dutchman's horror show against Juventus has quickly erased memories of his encouraging performances in the position of late. Allegri certainly has more faith in the former Portsmouth man when it comes to that particular position and will be hoping that the Ghanaian can get some minutes under his belt against Roma.
If it is vital that Boateng comes through Saturday night unscathed, then it is absolutely imperative that Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffers no recurrence of the back pain which forced him off at half-time against the Bianconeri. The Sweden international is the fulcrum of Milan’s attack. Indeed, it often seems that he is the entirety of the Rossoneri's forward force, with the recent rout of Palermo in Sicily a wonderful case in point.
|THE BEST CASE SCENARIO
Zambrotta - Nesta - T. Silva - Antonini
Aquilani - Ambrosini - Seedorf
Ibrahimovic - Robinho
On the plus side, Maxi Lopez, who is approaching full fitness after arriving from Catania carrying a knock, and proved once again in Turin that he is capable of making an impact from the bench. If Milan find themselves in dire straits, the ex-Barcelona man will be more than willing to step up and punish his former team.