Champions League

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Milan holds history over Atletico

Fire and brimstone
Milan's mercurial striker Mario Balotelli will go toe-to-toe against Atletico's Diego Costa.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg clash between an emerging Atletico Madrid and a declining AC Milan at the latter’s San Siro stadium (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 2:30 p.m. ET) brings a barnstorming clash between two of world soccer's most talented but temperamental targetmen.

Both punchy Spanish challengers Atletico and ailing Italian champions Milan boast a strong, physical, goal-hungry center-forward leading their attack -- someone who can win games on his own, but can also be sidetracked into disciplinary issues.

The home side’s Mario Balotelli has 13 goals in 26 club games this season -- including the spectacular 30 yard winner against Bologna in Serie A last weekend -- and has [mostly] put off field distractions behind him. Meanwhile, the visitors’ Diego Costa is having an even better campaign for Atletico, with 25 goals in 27 outings, and [generally] has avoided any argy-bargy with opposition defenders.

The Italian international was asked by Marca this week if he himself saw the tie as a duel between the two side’s talismanic strikers. “It will be a duel between Atletico and Milan,” Balotelli said firmly. “But Diego Costa seems to me a very good player. He is a great, great, great forward.”

The Brazilian-Spaniard was just as complementary to his rival when asked if he and Balotelli shared a similar playing style. "Balotelli is one of the best strikers in the world," Diego Costa told reporters on Tuesday. "Our defenders know this and will keep a close eye on him."

The focus on the two high-profile attackers is explained as both Milan and Atletico have never met at this level before, and their contrasting trajectories make predictions difficult. Milan is one of the competition’s most decorated sides, with seven European Cups claimed through its long successful history. But the Rossoneri has a rookie coach in Clarence Seedorf and financial and boardroom issues have seen a string of talented and experienced players leave the club in recent seasons.

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A weakened squad struggled past Celtic and Ajax in Europe, but continuing poor form in Serie A has it ninth in the table, a whopping 31 points behind leaders Juventus. It has won just four of its last 12 home games, and were recently knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Udinese. This makes the Champions League the last chance to save its season, and Balotelli knows it is now or never for his side.

“These are important games,” he said warily. “We need to prepare very well. Atletico are a very strong team, doing well in their league.”

In contrast, Atletico has never won the competition, and is seeking a first last eight appearance since 1997. Coach Diego Simeone may have plenty of other experience, but is new to the Champions League and only one of his players [David Villa] has been to a final. But Los Colchoneros were one of only three sides to come through this season’s group stages unbeaten, and bounced back from a recent blip to win 3-0 at home to Valladolid last Saturday and remain joint-top of La Liga alongside Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Costa said he and his teammates would be inspired -- not cowed -- by the challenge they face on Wednesday. “I like the big games,” Costa said. “I get motivated by games like this. I am going to San Siro to enjoy it. We know what Atletico stands for. I believe we can do something good there.”

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Costa may have a lone striker’s role in the game, with Villa not fully fit. Simeone could also choose the more physical style of Raul Garcia over the Diego Ribas’ silkier skills in support of the front-man, and is relieved to have Belgium international Thibaut Courtois back in goals. Meanwhile, Seedorf is without suspended central midfield pairing Riccardo Montolivo and Sully Muntari, so rusty reserves Michael Essien and Nigel de Jong could play. Brazilian playmaker Kaka is tipped to overcome an ankle sprain to start, and January arrivals Adil Rami and Adel Taarabt could both feature.

It could come down to whether Milan’s new players can be lifted by their club’s history, or if Atletico’s current confidence can overcome its inexperience at his level. Former Italy midfielder Demetrio Albertini, who won three Champions Leagues as a Milan player and also spent the 2002-03 season at Atletico, told AS that the tie was too tight to call.

“Atletico has an advantage, it is the favourite, its place in La Liga says this,” Albertini said. “It has the confidence of a winning team. But do not forget something -- the Champions League is Milan’s home. With seven European Cups, the history is there. ”

Can Balotelli’s class up front lift the traditional giant from its slumber? Will Costa and his teammates greater hunger see the upstarts victorious? Ninety minutes at San Siro will tell.

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