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The Champions League is back & we're into the knockout stages which invariably produces intriguing tactical battles. We now analyze Barcelona's visit to Milan..

SPECIAL
By Brendon Netto

The first leg between AC Milan and Barcelona is one of the more mouth-watering fixtures of the Round of 16 in the Champions League. The Catalans will no doubt be favourites but Milan gave them a good fight last year and will be hoping to do even better this time around. While the hosts are strong on the counter-attack, Barcelona live by their possession-based system. The contrasting styles of the two teams should make for an intriguing clash.


FORMATIONS AND TACTICS

How Milan Attack
4-3-3
How Barcelona Defend
4-3-3
AC Milan normally play on the offensive but they do have a tendency to adapt according to their opponents in cup competitions and especially in the Champions League. The Milanese club came up against Barcelona last season and did reasonably well against them by predominantly playing on the counter. Their passing system is not too extravagant or too intricate either. They like playing short, quick passes rather than dwelling on the ball for too long or launching it over the top of defenses. Montolivo will look to find his forwards by threading a few through balls into their paths. Along with Boateng who certainly packs a punch in his shots, they will try their luck from range on occasion.


With the front three of Giampaolo Pazzini, Stephan El Shaarawy and M'Baye Niang, they have a strike-force tailor made for the counter-attack. Pazzini in particular has exceptional movement and the ability to sniff out a goal. He won't hold the ball up too much, instead he will look to run in behind the defense rather than receiving the ball to feet. Niang has the pace and strength to terrorize defenders. He is also technically gifted and is a skillful player while he isn't afraid to shoot either. El Shaarawy has the potential to be a world-class player. He has outstanding technical ability, dribbling skill and can shoot from range. Together, the front three form part of a lethal attack for Milan. They will look to get the ball forward as quickly as possible without indulging in too much build-up play. Both their full-backs also pose a considerable threat on the counter with their pace and dribbling. However, it's unclear how often they will be afforded the chance to bomb forward with Barcelona likely to keep them pinned down in their own half for long periods.
When Barcelona defend, the process starts with the front three. A prominent feature of their game and the reason why they retain so much possession is their desire to hassle and harry their opponents until they relinquish possession which normally doesn't take too long. When their forward line puts pressure on the opponents' back four, they are inclined to clear their lines which often results in them kicking it out of bounds or into the path of a Barcelona shirt. If they try to pass or dribble their way out, there's every chance that the ball can be stolen off them or intercepted and they will most likely be exposed. Even Lionel Messi is required to put in a shift to make this system work.

To maintain this pressing game, the Catalans hold a very high-line in defense. The full-backs remain pushed up the pitch in order to help press their opponents. The two center-backs are able to play the offside trap between them with the full backs much further ahead. Gerard Pique's pace to track forwards looking to break on the counter is essential but they also require Valdes to be quick off his line if a striker beats the offside-trap. The pace and stamina of their full-backs also comes into play as they have to cover a lot of ground quickly when their opponents to counter-attack and they are caught up the pitch. Sergio Busquets sits in front of his two center-backs and often pulls wide to offer cover to either of the two full-backs. He is their insurance policy and critical to breaking down the opponents's attacks.

Note: Xavi is a slight doubt for this fixture. Cesc Fabregas will take his place if he isn't available.

How Milan Defend
4-3-3
How Barcelona Attack
4-3-3
Milan will basically defend on the edge of their penalty area. The full-backs will tuck inside and try to compress play. Keeping things narrow will help to contain and frustrate Barcelona. Nocerino will sit just in front of the back four while Montolivo and Boateng will be playing very deep as well, more out of necessity than choice.

While defending, their front three will most likely be positioned to break quickly on the counter. The central midfielders will have to cover for their wingers in defense. It's crucial that Philippe Mexes is on top form for a game of this magnitude. Nocerino in particular will have a big role to play. Messi often drops off to collect the ball in space and when he does, he'll become his responsibility. They can't afford to have Messi running through the heart of their defense. Milan will allow the Catalans into their half and look to soak up the pressure rather than attemt to close them down. They will attempt to strike only on the counter. They should have the advantage when defending set-pieces with the visitors not being great in the air.
Much like the opposing center-forward is normally isolated from the rest of his team when facing the Catalans, Victor Valdes cuts a lonely figure back in his own penalty box when his side flood forward in an attempt to force their opponents into submission. The custodian has even grown accustomed to being the only player in his half at times. The entire team attack as a unit and camp inside the opposition's half.

They have plenty of firepower upfront with the lethal Messi being flanked by Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. The two wingers cut inside and make play very narrow and congested in that penalty area, so much so that they operate more like strikers while Messi is allowed to drop off and flourish in his 'false 9' role. Despite having a very narrow front three, they don't comprise width in their play because their full-backs push forward when they attack and almost play like out-and-out wingers. Messi will drop deep on occasion and try to weave his way through the defense. Xavi Hernandez is the chief playmaker and his vision and range of passing allows him to dictate play exceptionally. Andres Iniesta makes runs forward and gets involved with the more intricate play in and around the penalty area.

 

ANALYSIS

Strengths –


Milan: The Milanese club will be banking on their attack. They have never replaced Andrea Pirlo and his playmaking genius. Hence, instead of carving open defenses with neat passing, they rely more on the pace and trickery of their forwards. Their ability to counter-attack swiftly is their greatest asset and is what gives them a chance against Barcelona who are often exposed to that particular ploy.

Barcelona: The Spanish giants have quality all over the pitch but the 'holy trinity' of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta gives them an undisputable edge. Their 'tiki-taka' style of play is easily the best feature of their game but their relentless pressing and closing down is what makes it feasible. They can pass teams to death and succeed in doing so more often than not.

Weaknesses –

Milan: This game would have been so much more interesting on so many levels if Mario Balotelli was available for this tie. The former Manchester City man is however cup-tied and inelligible for the rest of the Champions League this season. Milan will certainly miss the Italian striker especially since his red-hot form of late. Their midfield is a cause for concern as they lack creativity and the ability to keep possession for long periods. Furthermore, the absence of Nigel De Jong is probably most devastating for this clash in particular.

Barcelona: With the way they set-up, they are always exposed to the counter-attack. Their full-backs can be caught up the pitch and the space in behind them can be exploited. Their defense has never been very comfortable with dealing with the aerial threat and they do have a habit of conceding goals from set-pieces.

Milan Key Player: El Shaarawy
Barcelona Key Player: Messi
El Shaarawy is one of the most coveted young talents in world football. His dribbling ability and skill on the ball is outstanding. He poses a significant threat when cutting inside from the left and letting fly with his right foot. His versatility means that he can play anywhere across the front three or drop in behind the striker which makes him very difficult to mark. Despite being only 20 years old, he is Milan's top scorer in the Serie A and is second only to Edinson Cavani in the entire league with 15 goals.

In a game like this one, his ability to create a goal out of nothing will be crucial. He flourishes on the counter-attack and given that Milan will mainly operate on the break, he could play a vital role. His finishing is perhaps not as good as it should be but that will improve with age. The Champions League is a great opportunity for young players like him to announce themselves and Milan will be hoping he grabs it with both hands.

Messi became the first player in history to win the Ballon d'Or for a record fourth time not too long ago and he also has the distinction of winning it consecutively. He has always had a phenomenal gift to dribble with the ball at pace but his link-up play and goal scoring prowess makes him truly exceptional. His ability to dribble through the heart of defenses can make him impossible to stop at times and it's something that opposition's just can't deal with.

His ability to stand out even among his illustrious teammates marks him out as their most prominent figure. Not only does he score the bulk of their goals, he also scores their most crucial ones on a regular basis. He has added a lethal set-piece ability to his armour in the past couple of years and that only creates another avenue from where he can hurt teams. He is a real game-breaker and is normally the most dangerous player on the pitch.

Who do you think will win this tie? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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