[UCL PREVIEW: AC Milan-Atletico Madrid] Far adrift of Juventus in Serie A, AC Milan resumes its Champions League schedule in the unlikely role of an underdog.
Rarely in recent memory has the seven-time European champion been so regarded in the round of 16, but it hasn’t been as far as the semifinals since winning its last title in 2007. So even though its opponent, Atletico Madrid, hasn’t reached the semis in 40 years, on current form the Spanish team is the popular choice in the two-game series that starts Wednesday at the San Siro. (The game will be shown live on Fox Soccer Plus at 2 p.m. ET and delayed at 5 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2 and Fox Deportes.)
The Rossoneri have won just four of their last 12 home games and in European group play – after winning a playoff against PSV -- squeaked into second place, a point ahead of Ajax and four back of Barcelona, with two wins and three ties. Atletico romped through its group unbeaten and 10 points clear of second-place Zenit St. Petersburg while outscoring opponents, 15-3.
Milan started over last month by firing head coach Massimiliano Allegriafter a disastrous 4-3 league loss to Sassulo and replacing him with a club legend. Former Dutch international midfielder Clarence Seedorfhelped Milan win two European crowns during his decade (2002-12) with the club, and when Milan called abruptly terminated his player contract with Botafogo to take charge.
"We have a lot to do to get the club back where it belongs and I'm very happy to be back here,” said Seedorf upon his hiring. After a month in charge, there’s not yet much evidence of improvement, yet he does have one of Europe’s most potent weapons. Forward Mario Balotelli is -- as usual – racking up incredible goals and cautions nearly one-for-one.
Balotelli drilled an astonishing shot from distance into the top corner to down Bologna, 1-0, in a Serie A match last weekend, but otherwise he and his teammates grappled for answers in their 4-2-3-1 formation. In league play, he leads the team in goals with 10 and in cautions with eight;
Seedorf must tweak the lineup extensively in any case against Atlético, which is locked in a three-tie atop La Liga with giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Japanese international midfielder Keisuke Honda, who played with Kaka and Adel Taarabt in a line of three behind Balotelli against Bologna, is cup-tied. He scored two goals in six matches for CSKA Moscow in the group phase prior to arriving on a free transfer in January. Sulley Muntariis suspended for the first leg as is Riccardo Montolivo, who starts a two-game ban incurred for a sending-off in the group finale. Robinho is out with a thigh injury and Kaka is questionable with a sore ankle.
Atletico Madrid isn’t as prolific offensively as its two La Liga rivals, but it can score. Diego Costa has already more than doubled the 10 goals he scored in league play last season to set a personal high, and his tally of 21 is one of many reasons coach Diego Simeone can be confident of snatching an away goal or two,. Still not giving up a goal is his first priority.
“Both teams will play attacking football, so it will be important to defend well and not concede,” Simeone said.
Like Seedorf, he knows well the sensation of playing in the San Siro from his days with Inter Milan as well as Lazio and Pisa. He was also playing for Atletico when it last reached the Champions’ League quarterfinals in 1997.
“Playing at San Siro is a great feeling for any player. I am focused on this game. We do not consider ourselves favorites, we have to show we are better than them on the field.”
Offense may be the best approach for Atlético, since it is shorthanded on the defensive side. Defender Juanfran is available after serving a one-game ban, but the back line is weakened at the corners. Outside backs Fillipe Luis and Javi Manquillo were both injured recently in Copa del Rey action. Filipe Luis suffered a torn adductor muscle three weeks ago in the quarterfinals and Manquillo is recovering from a neck injury resulting from a head-first fall in a semifinal loss to Real Madrid. Manquillo needs to wear a cervical collar for at least a month.
Midfielder Tiago is also sidelined. He left the field Feb. 9 on a stretcher during a 2-0 league loss to Almeria. Medical tests revealed a right knee ligament strain and broken left wrist.
Though he’s been in job barely a month, Seedorf believes there is a game plan he can utilize in his first European encounter as a coach.
“Atlético deserve respect,” says Seedorf. “They are a strong team –- well organized –- but they have chinks in their armor that we hope to exploit. We will give our best and we will stick together.”