Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Massimiliano Allegri has admitted that he started counting the hours to the most testing moment in his career - sending his Milan side out to face Barcelona at Camp Nou - from the moment the final whistle went at Genoa on Friday evening.
The Rossoneri coach has already overcome the Catalans once in the stirring 2-0 win at the San Siro, but that will have been in vain if his players cannot repeat their performance of the first leg and keep Barcelona at bay in their own back yard.
A place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League is at stake, and if Milan succeed in knocking the strongest team in world football out of the competition, it would redefine Allegri as a coach of the highest order.
Milan strengthened their grip on third place with a 2-0 victory in a bruising encounter at Genoa which saw Giampaolo Pazzini and Philippe Mexes both pick up knocks. After the game, Allegri candidly revealed the stress that will build up to a crescendo on Tuesday night: "Thankfully we only have four days to wait otherwise it would become too unbearable."
Allegri may have lost Pazzini, the victim of an unprovoked attack by Daniele Portanova, but the striker still managed to hobble around long enough to score the opening goal. The absence of Pazzini is a blow, but it may also enable the ever-more astute tactician to spring a surprise or two on Barca’s defence.
Milan’s overall game plan will not change from that of the first leg, where they fought fire with fire in the midfield and were more than stealth-like in coming forward when the opportunity presented itself. That tactic saw them claim two well-taken goals, but just as importantly deny the Catalans an away goal.
Allegri took a much-more experienced side to the Camp Nou for last season's quarter-final second leg, but despite Antonio Nocerino giving Milan a 1-0 aggregate lead, the defence could not contain a Lionel Messi-inspired comeback.
This time they have no need to go chasing goals, but they will be well aware Barcelona will not be as sluggish and out of sorts as they were in Milan in front of their home support.
Once again the devil will be in the detail as Allegri demands a calmness in the heat of battle. He will no doubt turn again to his most physical performers, with Massimo Ambrosini asked to repeat his heroics of the first leg. That night, the veteran captain and Sulley Muntari were willing workers in front of a back four that in the second leg may not get many opportunities to stray too far from their own penalty area.
With Pazzini out, Boateng could be employed further forward to mark Busquets, with Nocerino on the right of midfield which, leaving Stephan El Shaarawy as the lone striker. This would mean the first line of defence would be the midfield, and if a tackle or a stray foot can knock the ball free then Milan could really put Barca on the back-foot with the long ball over the top for El Shaarawy to chase on to.
Riccardo Montolivo will be the main outlet to send the young striker racing away behind the backline, but with Nocerino dropping back, Ignazio Abate’s pace from a deep position could also cause problems down the right flank. As the Rossoneri vice president Adriano Galliani put it: “There will be no Fort Apache game plan from us.”
However, it will be an occasion for cool heads to ensure that all the planning does not go to waste in a moment of madness - and the manner in which Kevin Constant lost his head when fouled by Genoa’s Cesar Bovo suggests that Allegri may switch the less-easily ruffled Mattia De Sciglio to the left-back position. Despite having just turned 20, the former youth player is already looking the part as the heir-apparent to Paolo Maldini. Cool and confident in possession, he has rarely been caught out of position which makes it easier to intercept the ball than to be drawn into a mis-timed tackle.
Milan demonstrated that they can be as cultured as their opponents when they took the sting out Barca’s game last time around, and they will be relying on frustration to tell on their opponents once more.
Friday’s encounter in Genoa was not really a dry-run for what lies ahead in Spain - apart from the opposition wearing the same colour kit. Yet there were still moments at the Luigi Ferraris when Milan came under some pressure, even if it merely akin to the lapping of gentle waves rather than the tsunami that awaits them in the Camp Nou.
Allegri, for one, cannot wait for the chance to turn the tide of Milan’s fortunes against Barcelona.
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