The next big things and the players to look for
Even before the draw for the first knock-out stage of this season’s UEFA Champions League was made back in December just days after David Beckham had confirmed he would be returning to the San Siro for a second loan spell, deep down, we all just knew this was coming.
While Milan may not be the force they once were, they will still represent a stern test to a Manchester United side some have claimed will be unable to match their own European success of the previous two seasons, following the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
Of course, last summer saw some notable departures from the Milan camp too, namely coach Carlo Ancelotti, who headed off to Chelsea after eight years at the San Siro helm, and Brazilian talisman Kaka sealing a big money move to Real Madrid.
As such, two more Brazilians have been asked to step up to the plate.
Former Milan midfielder and short-lived BBC pundit, Leonardo moved from the Milan technical director’s office to the manager’s dugout, while former Barcelona star Ronaldinho was tasked with acting as the team’s new creative catalyst.
To his credit, Ronaldinho certainly has stepped it up this season, after a fairly disappointing first year in Italy, although he’s still nowhere near the level that saw him universally acknowledged as the world’s best during his time at Camp Nou.
Leonardo, meanwhile, has provided a steady transition from the Ancelotti era and, although it doesn’t appear as though the 40-year-old is going to have as instant an impact in terms of winning major honours, Milan clearly made the move with Pep Guardiola’s success at Barcelona in mind.
"Don't know what you're laughing at, pal - you're on the bench..."
Initially, things looked like they could quickly turn sour, with Milan starting the season slowly, taking just 12 points from their first eight Serie A matches.
The turning point was a somewhat surprising Champions League win at the Bernabau.
The Rossoneri suffered only one domestic defeat in the dozen matches which followed and, although a recent blip saw them lose to rivals Inter for the second time this season and draw disappointingly with both Livorno and Bologna, Milan were back to winning ways on Friday with a 3-2 victory over Udinese.
At this stage Inter still look favourites to win the Scudetto, sitting nine points ahead of third place Milan, but Leonardo’s side will be encouraged by the way they’ve closed that gap, and the fact they have a game in hand to potentially shorten it further.
Leonardo will likely opt to play with a 4-3-2-1 against United, with experienced trio Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf in the middle, where they will likely be in direct competition with Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in what could be the game’s key battle.
Milan’s biggest pre-match concerns surround the fitness of forwards Alexandre Pato and Marco Borriello.
The former is very much the rising star of the current Milan side, while the latter acts as the focal point of the attack (don’t call him a target man – that’s just not very Milan, is it?)
If either or both are unavailable, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar may feature up top.
The Dutchman has undergone an inauspicious start to his career with Milan, failing to score in his first 18 appearances for the Rossoneri, although the former Real Madrid and Ajax striker did score twice in Friday’s win over Udinese.
David Beckham may also find his fate decided by the fitness of Pato and Borriello. If both are available, Beckham is likely to start on the bench.
There are a few weaknesses in the Milan side United may be able to exploit.
While they are typically solid at centre-back, with new boy Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta quickly developing a strong understanding – they lack the same strength at full-back.
There is also a distinct lack of pace in the midfield, unsurprising given the average age of its components.
Three to watch:
Name: Alexandre PatoDate of Birth: 02/09/1989Place of Birth: Pato Branco (Brazil)Nationality: BrazilianHeight: 179Weight: 71Position: Centre ForwardSquad number: 7
Pato has made such an explosive start to his career, that it’s easy to forget that he’s still only just 20 years of age.
As a 17-year-old with Internacional back in Brazil, he was widely regarded as one of the best prospects in world football, and it was that reputation that saw Milan pay €22 million for his services in August 2007.
Far from buckling under the pressure of such hype, Pato was named Serie A’s Young Player of the Year for 2009, and has already made his debut for the senior Brazil side, against Sweden in March 2009.
Pato is an extremely skilful and an exceptional talent. He has top-quality pace, acceleration, dribbling and finishing skills.
He needs to improve his aerial ability and is certainly physically strong player – he’ll certainly be glad Nemanja Vidic hasn’t travelled to Milan for the match.
Name: Andrea PirloDate of Birth: 19/05/1979Place of Birth: Brescia (Italy)Nationality: ItalianHeight: 177Weight: 68Position: Defensive MidfielderSquad number: 21
Pirlo has had a glittering career with Milan and Italy. He started his career with Brescia and made his debut for them way back in 1995, aged just 16.
He had a spell with Milan’s rivals Inter between 1998 and 2001, although he failed to make a real impact with the Nerazzurri, and moved to AC Milan for €18 million.
Since then, he has won one Serie A title (2004) and two UEFA Champions Leagues (2003 and 2007), as well as the World Cup with Italy in 2006.
Pirlo dictates the play and tempo for Milan from his position in front of the back four.
Although playing nominally in the holding defensive midfield role, Pirlo is essentially a deep-lying playmaker or a sweeper pushed up in front of the defence.
He has an exceptional range of passing. He is gifted at long-range shooting and can score from free-kicks.
Despite being one of the best players in the world for his role, Pirlo has several weaknesses.
He is certainly not the quickest and isn’t the type of player to launch into crunching tackles, but he has the likes of Ambrosini and Gattuso around him to do the midfield dirty work.
Name: RonaldinhoDate of Birth: 21/03/1980Place of Birth: Porto Alegre (Brazil)Nationality: BrazilianHeight: 181Weight: 80Position: Attacking Midfielder/Forward (Right, Left, Centre)Squad number: 80
Ronaldinho’s career has seen him wind up at Milan via highly successful spells at Gremio, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.
He was European Footballer of the Year in 2005 and FIFA World Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006.
At club level the Brazilian has won the Spanish league twice (2005 and 2006) and the Champions League in 2006.
At international level with Brazil, he won the Copa America in 1999 and the World Cup in 2002.
The 29-year-old is generally considered one of the most gifted players of his generation. His touch, control and technique are of the highest quality.
He is an exceptional dribbler and finisher, capable of spectacular goals. He is an imaginative passer with immense flair, vision and creativity.
Question surrounding his fitness and motivation appear to have been answered with some brilliant performances for Milan in recent months.
But, while Ronaldinho is currently playing very well, he is still not quite at the level he was for Barcelona in 2005/06 – with some pundits theorising that he has never really come to terms with a disspointing 2006 World Cup.
With thanks to Michal Oliva and all at Championship Manager
NEWS: Ferguson wary of Milan experienceBLOG: Serie Aaaaargh!: Milan hobbled by creaking limbs and a dodgy Becks
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