It will very much be a case of pedigree versus form when Milan and Atletico Madrid meet in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie at the San Siro on Wednesday.
In terms of their history in the competition, there is no comparison. Milan have lifted the European Cup on seven occasions, second only to Atletico’s local rivals Real Madrid. Atletico on the other hand have reached just one final, which they lost. Indeed, this is only the second time in the Champions League era that Atletico have reached the knockout phase. Only once in the past 11 seasons have Milan failed to reach at least this stage of the world’s most prestigious club competition.
Yet, conversely, in terms of the current state of the two teams Atletico holds an equally clear advantage. Under Diego Simeone, Atletico have been on a constant upward trajectory. The former Atletico captain led the team to the Europa League in 2012 and then last season broke the spell their illustrious neighbors held over them by beating Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey on their own Bernabeu turf.
This season they have taken it a step further. Los Colchoneros currently sit in a three-way tie at the top of La Liga and spent their first week as the outright leaders in 18 years earlier this month. Despite selling off their best players, having a budget that pales in comparison to their rivals and a relatively small squad, Atletico keep defying the skeptics with the ferocious intensity inspired by their coach.
Milan are desperately hoping that one of their former midfielders can lead them to a similar revival of fortunes. Under investment in recent seasons has left Milan with a squad that is a shadow of their glory sides of the past. For the past few seasons they have held things together to the extent that they remained competitive and crucially qualifying for the Champions League. This campaign the bottom has fallen out and Milan find themselves languishing in mid-table. Their only hope of being in the Champions League next season is to win it.
Such was the extent of the team’s slide that Milan decided to bring forward Max Allegri’s exit as manager and turn their former Dutch star Clarence Seedorf for his first coaching role. It is a huge task for the intelligent and popular 37-year-old, who won the Champions League four times as a player, twice with Milan.
Thus far it has been a mixed start. The results have largely been good, with just one defeat in five Serie A games, yet the performances have been more modest. Milan, though, have been here before. Despite their domestic struggles, in the past two seasons the Rossoneri have risen to the occasion of the Champions League and given Barcelona plenty to think about before eventually exiting.
Milan will be counting on their experience to shine through once again on Tuesday against a side with little familiarity with two-legged Champions League knockout ties. The Italians will also be hoping that the slight signs that Atletico are beginning to run short on gas come to fruition. However, while maintaining their edge for a 38-game league season may ultimately prove too much for their resources, it is arguable that the knockout nature of the Champions League will suit both their limited squad and their style of play far better.
Where to watch: The first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will kick off at the Giuseppe Meazza at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available via a free trial to Fox Soccer 2Go.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.