AC Milan are in the hot seat after a shocking start to their Italian campaign. Milan looked poor in pre-season and continued that form with a loss in their opener to lowly Hellas Verona. Now, with a place in Europe’s elite on the line, Milan are hoping to get Mario Balotelli back and firing after he was injured on their American tour. Milan do hold a slim advantage: Stephen El Shaarawy’s away goal is enough to take them through as it stands.
But Milan have a passel of injury problems with Giampaolo Pazzini, Daniele Bonera and Nigel De Jong all out with a variety of ailments. But on paper, they still appear to be the stronger side and have a solid home record against PSV: the Dutch side have never won at the San Siro, and memorably lost to Milan in the 2004-05 Champions League semis. The star on that PSV team? Philip Cocu, now PSV’s coach.
PSV also are coming off a hangover: they stumbled to a 1-1 against Heracles on the weekend but have otherwise started their season in storming fashion otherwise, sitting second overall in the Eredivisie after running off impressive wins over NEC and Go Ahead Eagles. But despite nicking a critical goal from Tim Matavz, PSV are under pressure: they were grim in last year’s Europa League and haven’t made an appearance in the Champions League’s group stages 2008-09.
The other match to keep an eye on is in Glasgow, Scotland, where Celtic will have to overcome a 2-0 first led loss to a baffling Shakhter Karagandy side. The Pitmen of Kazakhstan were gifted by Celtic’s profligacy in front of the net in the first leg and now must hold out against what is expected to be a withering response at Celtic Park. Aleksandr Mokin looked dreadful in the Shakhter nets, and if Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras are fit and ready, it is expected Celtic will attempt to run down the gut at him.
In fact, by rights, Celtic should have won comfortably in Kazakhstan, but an inability to actually put the ball into the goal cost them dearly. They did everything else – hitting the post, the woodwork, the crowd, the advertising boards — and possibly a sheep carcass.
On that infamous subject, Tuesday’s press briefing took a detour into the surreal when Shahkter manager Viktor Kumykov confirmed his team would once again sacrifice an ovine before the match. Through an interpreter, Kumykov said, "As far as we know in Scotland the agriculture is very developed so it shouldn’t be an issue to find a sheep."
In our other matches, Lyon have never recovered from a first-leg home defeat in European play, and that grim history is expected to continue as they travel to Spain to face Carlos Vela and Real Sociedad. Sociedad have never lost a two-legged tie when holding a two-goal lead in European play. On the evidence of the first leg, they will continue that streak.
Zenit will take a commanding 4-1 first leg lead back to St. Petersburg against Portuguese minnows Pacos de Ferreira. Danny pulled the strings, and a Roman Shirokov hat trick eased the Russians into what should be a fait accompli. Pacos have never scored an away goal in European play, and on the hard surface of the Petrovski, they’re not expected to break their duck.
Plzen hold all the aces as they travel to Maribor with a two-goal lead. The Czechs are on a six-game unbeaten streak and have shown a penchant for racking up the goals. Maribor looked overawed by the occasion last week and are looking forward to a safer landing in the Europa League.