Barcelona and Milan could be forgiven for thinking that a long-mooted European Super League is already upon them as they prepare to meet for the seventh time in just over two years. While Milan have gained just one win in the six most recent meetings, all in the Champions League, they have provided stern opposition on each occasion. And with Mario Balotelli back in contention, they will hope to do so again at the San Siro on Tuesday.
The charismatic striker has been absent since Milan’s last European outing, in Amsterdam at the start of the month, but manager Massimiliano Allegri confirmed that he has returned to training and is in the squad. Whether he will be fit to start still has to be assessed, but the Italians will definitely have Nigel de Jong, Philippe Mexes and Mattia De Sciglio available.
Balotelli’s last action for Milan, when he scored a penalty with almost the last kick of the match against Ajax to secure a 1-1 draw, could yet be crucial to Milan’s hopes of once again making the knockout phase. The Rossoneri lie in second place in Group H on four points, three points ahead of third-placed Ajax. But Allegri knows that they are likely to find themselves under pressure in the final two games, unless they can take something from the double-header with Barcelona.
Early performances this season have hardly been encouraging. Milan secured only their third win in Serie A so far this season against Udinese on Saturday, but remain in midtable. Injuries have played a factor and thus the return of three, and possibly four, first-team players, on Tuesday will be most welcomed.
Still, Allegri does have reason to be encouraged going up against a Barcelona side in much superior form. It was Milan that showed up the early chinks in Barcelona’s armor last season, with a shock 2-0 win in the first leg of their last-16 tie. While they were blitzed 4-0 in the return, Allegri’s side gave Barcelona’s defense plenty of problems by simply remaining compact and looking to strike on the break.
That 2-0 loss, followed by a further stern test by Paris Saint-Germain and subsequent humiliating elimination by Bayern Munich, appeared to make it certain that Barcelona’s priority in the transfer market this summer would be to reinforce their defense. Once again, though, that didn’t happen. Instead Gerardo Martino chose to rely heavily on the return to fitness of Carles Puyol. And on Saturday, for the first time since his early exit from Barcelona’s last visit to the San Siro back in March, the veteran club captain was back in the Catalans’ lineup. On Tuesday, Puyol is set to reunite with Gerard Pique to reform Barcelona’s first-choice center-back pairing.
With Pique rested, Puyol made an impressive return, helping shutout Osasuna. Instead, the problems were at the other end, where Barcelona failed to score for the first time in either La Liga or the Champions League this season.
That, though, was with Lionel Messi left on the bench until the final 22 minutes. With the Argentinian sure to start at the San Siro and again linkup with the impressive Neymar, Milan’s defense will face a sterner test than that of Osasuna’s. But, potentially boosted by Balotelli’s return, Milan could again match Barcelona and secure a draw that will do neither side any great harm.
Prediction: Milan 1-1 Barcelona
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.