I’ve previously written about The Moral City of Italy (is that really what it’s called?) as a stand-in for rampaging Visigoths. I’ve also previously written about the city while attempting to avoid discussions of medieval warfare. Blitzen has gotten in on that act as well. I feel like I can’t possibly write more about Milan. And yet, here we are, on the even of another Champions League encounter with a team from that very city. The only thing left to talk about is the thing no one wants to talk about. No, not Bojan; politics.
Whatever your political beliefs, it would be foolish to forget that when Sport or Marca discuss Silvio Berlusconi and “su” (“his”) Milan, they’re putting extraneous quotation marks around words. It’s actually his Milan. He owns them. And his political fortunes rise and fall with them. Forza Italia was a play on Forza Milan. What this match means is a potential blockbuster success for Berlusconi as he seeks a return to power. It is not necessarily an important political victory for Sandro Rosell, but a victory wouldn’t hurt his waning popularity among socis. It would obviously be foolish to pit these two sides against each other as some sort of Evil Empire East versus the Forces of Good, but there’s little doubt that political victories have been earned with less.
The individual players are probably not worried about whether particular political actors will win election or re-election due to their on-field achievements, but if football were played in a vacuum,
the players would suffocate there wouldn’t be much point to watching, would there? There certainly would be a lot less to write about, anyway. As it is, there is so much going on behind-the-scenes that few Champions League matches will have the wider ramifications that this one will. Yes, it’s true that the “wider ramifications” of Barcelona being eliminated by AC Milan would by socis and not the general population, but I can easily envision a Rosell-vs-Laporta fight to the death regarding the future of this club, the Catalan state, and questions of regional autonomy revolving around the idea that “Well, I never got eliminated in the Round of 16, you big lummox.” (The counter argument is that, well, of course Barcelona lost in the Round of 16 under Laporta: 2006–07 and 2004–05; just not with this group of players, so n’yah!)
What is on paper a whitewash (Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta vs Boateng, Robinho, and Philip Mexes…and Bojan) was made significantly closer with the addition of the exquisitely talented and insatiably insane Mario Balotelli. A scintillating matchup between the powerful intensity of one of the world’s strikers and…oh, he’s cup-tied? Nevermind. We’re back to the drawing board here at the Barcelona Football Blog offices. The truth, though, is that Milan have been playing fairly well recently, having won 4 of 5 in Serie A. They haven’t lost since December 22, a run of 7 matches. Granted, their 4 most recent goals were scored by Balotelli (there was an own goal mixed in there), but that doesn’t mean they are unable to score without him. The bigger key is that 2 of those 4 were penalties. Without Balotelli, the team loses a major striking option, but they do have several others. Pato, the man who scored so quickly against Barcelona last season in the group stage, is not one of them, having moved to Corinthians. Thiago Silva, the other goal scorer in that match shipped off to PSG before the season began. Their third goalscorer against Barcelona was Zlatan Ibarhimovic. Only Boateng, who netted Milan’s 2nd with a gorgeous goal in a 2-3 Barcelona victory at the San Siro in November 2011, remains on the squad from last year’s group stage goal scorers. (Antonio Nocerino, Milan’s only goal scorer when the two teams met in the quarter finals in March and April 2012, is also still with the team)
While Milan is considerably different than it was last year, it is still in 3rd place in Italy. They obviously finished 2nd in their Champions League group, but they did fend off a fairly strong group, led by winners Malaga and followed by 1 point by Zenit St. Petersburg and 3 points by Anderlecht. Milan proved their stuff with a victory at Zenit; their first goalscorer from that match, Urby Emanuelson, is no longer with the club, having moved to Fulham on loan, but the name to remember for this whole thing, Stephan El Shawaary also made the scoresheet that night.
It’s Shawaary that provides both the talent and the hope for Milan: he is their up-and-coming striker who often plays on the wing. He’s come into his own this year, having scored some 15 goals in 22 matches, good for 2nd best in the league. He has a tremendous right foot and excellent tight control. And he’s fast. He left a couple of Barcelona defenders in his wake last year and could very easily do it again if given the opportunity. With Boateng in the middle, Milan has a rather impressive dual attack they’re able to mount. It will be up to Barcelona to cut off the supply lines. The usual prescription of suffocation by lack of possession might just do the trick, but their counters could very well be lethal.
Who else does Milan have? Hmm. Can’t think of anyone.
Official Prediction: 1-1. Everything to play for at the Camp Nou, but with a slight advantage to Barcelona given the away goal. I think it will be a tight, cagey affair as Milan pack it in and hope to catch FCB on the break. And they’ll do it once. The real winner, both at club level and at political level, will be determined in the second leg.