When Mark van Bommel, Maxi Lopez, Gianluca Zambrotta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic welcome their former side Barcelona CF to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, they will be hoping AC Milan can do something no side has done this season: beat the Blaugrana in a UEFA Champions League game.
The Catalan side have a perfect record in this season’s edition and aim to be the first side to hold the Champions League after they won it at the Wembley Arena last year, beating Manchester United 3-1 on the night.
They face another side nicknamed the Red Devils in the Rossoneri this time around, with the two sides having already locked horns in the Group Phase last year. It ended all square at the Nou Camp on Matchday 1, Pato’s first minute goal overturned by Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa, before Thiago Silva gave his side a share of the spoils with a 92nd minute equaliser.
There was no shortage of either goals or excitement on Matchday 5, Barca prevailing 3-2 at the San Siro and going on to win their Group. Xavi Hernandez scored what turned out to be the winner after Ibrahimovic and Kevin-Prince Boateng had twice equalised for Milan, after the visitors had taken the lead through van Bommel’s 14th minute own-goal and Lionel Messi‘s penalty just after the half-hour mark.Milan played the last hour of that game with ten men, following Alberto Aquilani’s dismissal.
The fact that both sides were in the same group makes it rather easy to compare their performances so far. Milan were the only team who could actually pose a threat to Barca in the Group Stages, the other sides being Czech club Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov from Belarus. The Rossoneri made heavy work of their group, posting identical 2-0 wins at the San Siro against Plzenand BATE, but were surprisingly held to 2-2 draws away. Barcelona, on the other hand – the Milan game at home aside – managed a perfect success rate, thrashing BATE 5-0 and Plzen 4-0 on their travels, while ambling to home successes against both sides.
In the knockout stages of the competition, Milan walloped Arsenal 4-0 on an awful San Siro pitch, and the tie looked all but over. But the return leg saw Arsenal embark on ‘Mission Improbable’ and Laurent Koscielny, Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky scored in a whirlwind first half that cancelled out strikes from Kevin-Prince Boateng, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and one of Robinho’s two. Milan, however, tightened up in the second half and scraped through to the next round.
Speaking to UEFA.com after the game, Milan’s Dutch midfielder Urby Emanuelson said, “It was difficult, especially when you go into the dressing room [at half time] and that it’s 3-0 for Arsenal and it was just not what we wanted, but it happened.
“After all we can happy we are through to the next round. We didn’t want them to score in the first fifteen minutes. Then you see you made a mistake I believe in the corner kick and its 1-0. From that moment you give Arsenal something to believe in. They did that, the supporters were standing behind them and they played a very good first half. In the second half, we can be happy about it. We controlled the game a little bit more, we played better and after all we made it to the next round.”
Barcelona too had nearly sealed their progression to the quarter-finals when they beat Bayer Leverkeusen 3-1 at the Bay Arena, but unlike Milan, their advance forward was never in doubt. Inspired by Lionel Messi, the Blaugrana put seven past their beleaguered German counterparts in Catalonia, thrashing them 7-1 on the night and 10-2 on aggregate. Messi became the first player to score five goals in a UEFA Champions League game, while substitute Christian Tello scored two more.
Little Leo himself was very modest after the game, saying, “We’re enjoying the moment. It went well with the team in this last match. Things are going well with the club as well. We hope we can continue like this for the rest of the season, and the team continues like this. The most important thing is that the team continues this dynamic to win and to get as far as possible in the Champions League.”
His midfield companion Xavi Hernandez heaped praise on him, saying, “Leo is incomparable. There is simply no other player who can make the difference as he does in so many games. When he doesn’t score a goal, he assists you. He truly is fantastic. Good results may sometimes happen and others not, but we’re definitely happy with the way we’ve been playing. Pep Guardiola has given everyone a boost in motivation, confidence and emotional balance. He is the key for everything to work out so perfectly.”
Both sides have squared off thirteen times in UEFA competitions so far, with Barcelona recording five wins in response to Milan’s 4, and having scored 19 goals, one more than the Rossoneri. Milan’s home form against Barca reads W2 D1 L3.Barcelona have also won their last two meetings against Milan at the San Siro. The 3-2 win apart, they also won in the semi-finals of the 2005-06 edition, Ludovic Giuly’s goal after a sublime pass from Ronaldinho giving Barca the win. Both Van Bommel and Maxi Lopez played against Milan that night. Milan last beatBarcelonaon 20 October 2004, when Andriy Shevchenko scored the only goal of the game.
But the clubs’ most high-profile encounter was inAthensduring the 1994 Champions League final, when Milan stuffed Barcelona 4-0, with goals from Daniele Massaro, Dejan Savicevic and Marcel Desailly. Pep Guardiola was a starter for Barcelona in that game.
Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimović is undaunted by Barca, stating that “they are the best team in the world and everyone’s favorite, but we have nothing to lose and they do,”
While Barcelona’s sporting director Andoni Zubizareta is excited about the renewal of a rivalry he terms passionate. “Milan are an enormous club with history, tradition, players, individual quality, great stadium and great fans. We know them, having played them recently, but obviously it is a very different situation this time.
“It’s a match between two great clubs, two great teams, two great squads, two great coaches, two great sets of fans and two great stadiums. We’ll see everything that’s passionate about football in these quarter-finals.”
The tie will be fraught with reunions, some of them emotionally charged. Ibrahimovic played for the Catalans and scored hatfuls of goals for them, before being frozen out of the side with no apparent explanation from Pep Guardiola. Van Bommel, Zambrotta and Lopez all played for Barcelona in the past. Javier Mascherano and Alberto Aquilani both donned the Liverpool shirt together, but now play for opposing sides. A similar situation involves Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, who were colleagues at Arsenal before the Frenchman left for the San Siro in the summer of 2008.
Rossoneri fans will be hoping Milan can repeat their first-leg Round of 16 histrionics against Barcelona, while the Camp Nou faithful will be egging Barcelona to play the football which makes Messi, Xavi and Co. appear to be from another planet altogether. Either way, fans and pundits alike will be salivating as the tie serves up some of the best football this edition of the UEFA Champions League will witness.
Catch the match on Wednesday
AC Milan vs Barcelona at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on 19:45 GMT