Perfect time for AC Milan to pull upset

There is a reason for AC Milan supporters to look at their Champions League tie with Barcelona and think that it might have a happy outcome.

After all, the last time Barcelona lost a Champions League knockout match, it happened against a team from Milan. That was Inter of course, two years ago, when Jose Mourinho was busy taking the Italian side to a finals victory over Bayern Munich.

It might be a stretch, however, to believe that history will repeat when the reigning European champions take on the Serie A leaders, in a match that starts with the first leg in the San Siro. As good as Milan’s been in their domestic league this season, the ability of their injury-hit, veteran side to deal with Barcelona’s passing game has to be a major concern.

The defending champs will start clear favorites in this marquee clash of giants: they have the world’s best player at the head of their attack, a midfield of incomparable skills and a Champions League mentality which has seen them impose their game on all types of opponents.

Why should Barcelona prevail?

Lionel Messi has already put together an entire career at the age of 24. He’s Barcelona’s all-time scoring leader and seems to get better with every match. He’s the main reason why his side has been beaten only once in the Champions League since that semifinal loss to Inter Milan in 2010. He’s also the man responsible for 30 of the 60 goals they’ve scored in their last 25 European games.

Milan, in contrast, have managed to reach this stage of the competition despite prevailing in just four of their last 15 Champions League contests. Their quarterfinal victory over Arsenal was as remarkable for its 4-0 first leg win in the San Siro, as it was for their tight-rope escape act while losing the return contest 3-0 at Emirates Stadium.

That tie showed what Milan can produce when they get the most from the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but also revealed the fragility of a defense that can be exposed by the type of quick-passing Barcelona is renowned for. The visitors average nearly 75 per cent possession in their European contests, playing the same style of match home or away.

Now, AC Milan will be given hope by the fact that they have never lost a home quarterfinal. They will be cheered by the fact that while Barcelona got the better of them in the group stages, they showed they can score goals. Unfortunately, they enter with serious injury woes.

Thiago Silva is out with a thigh injury picked up last week in domestic play and is expected to miss both legs against the Catalans. Robinho (ankle) has not played since March 14, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Alessandro Nesta both have been battling thigh injuries and Marc van Bommel’s back is a concern. Alexandre Pato and Ignazio Abate have also been sidelined.

Barcelona comes into the tie in good shape. Aside from defender Eric Abidal and forward David Villa, the visitors do not list any major injury concerns.

It was Thiago who snatched a last-gasp equalizer in the Camp Nou when the teams opened group stage play with a 2-2 draw back in September, on one of those rare nights when Messi did not score. Messi was on target, but Xavi Hernandez scored the winner in Italy when Barcelona took the second leg 3-2 to make it three wins, two draws in the last five meetings between the sides.

For AC Milan, the key to getting something from this tie would seem to be Ibrahimovic, who may have a personal point to prove against his former team. The big Swedish international never seemed to quite fit during his 2009-11 stay in Spain, but has been sharp of late in league play. He would probably like nothing better than to send his old club a message.

If there is any concern for Barcelona it must be that they no longer seem quite as dominant as a year ago. The rigors of playing so many big matches over the past three years, appears to be finally taking its toll. Josep Guardiola’s bunch has rebounded strongly in the past month. They have climbed back to within six points of Real Madrid in La Liga, reviving a possible title race once thought decided.

Barca’s already booked a Spanish Cup final date (against Athletic Bilbao) and will be playing until the final weekend of May no matter how their Euro campaign continues to unfold.

For AC Milan, the timing for a major upset may be right. They have a working margin in their Serie A title bid, though Juventus has certainly not been felled. They are out of the Italian Cup. That means full concentration and emphasis can be placed on this Champions League tie.

A victory, while unexpected, would not rank among the great shocks in European history. Nevertheless, until someone sidelines Barcelona, this remarkable team remains the favorite no matter the opponent.