It’s one of the most magnetic pairings possible in European football, and it will play out this season in one of the Champions League’s two “groups of death,” so named because one good team will be consigned to the scrapheap.
Group G, a powerhouse that hosts Italy’s AC Milan, Spain’s Real Madrid, Holland’s Ajax and French upstarts Auxerre, is expected to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for supremacy.
Three of the four teams in the group — Milan, Real and Ajax — are many-time European Cup champions. But the two powers widely expected to progress from the group stages — AC Milan and Real Madrid — are also in an unusual and uncomfortable position.
Both teams have been left looking up at their bitter rivals, wondering when — or if — they can catch up. The bottom line is that both need big showings in Europe to reassure an impatient fan base unaccustomed to being out of the spotlight.
AC Milan, which shares the San Siro stadium with their archrivals, has seethed as Internazionale has won Serie A for five straight years. Despite some big names — Brazilians Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato, and Italian Andrea Pirlo — the Rossoneri haven’t won the league since 2003-04, and have finished third the past two seasons, finishing a full 12 points behind Inter last year. Inter of course also won the Champions League last season, adding salt to the wound.
Real Madrid last won La Liga in 2007-08, and finished just three points off the pace last year. Barcelona, unfortunately for fans of Los Merengues, lost only one game in a season that seemed more like a coronation than a contest. More galling perhaps was that Barcelona were also the defending European Cup champions, and were widely expected to repeat, a worldwide signal of the gap between the two clubs.
Both teams have tried to solve the problem with money: AC Milan brought in Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic during the transfer window, displaying him on a red carpet at halftime of their first Serie A match like a trophy; then followed up with a deadline day swoop for Manchester City’s Brazilian misfit Robinho. With these moves, Milan now boasts three world class attackers that can play together, forming a trident to rival of that of Bayern Munich or Chelsea.
What AC Milan doesn’t have is a big name coach. Milan sacked Leonardo after only a season despite the Brazilian’s shift to a more attacking style of play that signaled the club might finally be making the best use of its talent. However, after Manchester United hammered them in the Champions league 7-2 on aggregate, the writing was on the wall, and owner Silvio Berlusconi — yes, the Prime Minister of Italy — brought down the hatchet.
In his place? Little-known Massimiliano Allegri, a former journeyman player who made his name at Cagliari, when he shepherded a team with little talent and fewer resources into a respectable mid-table finish.
Real spent its loot in a different way: they hired away Inter’s coach, Jose Mourinho, a man whose ego — and achievements — rival that of any high-paid player. That is arguably what Real Madrid needs.
In recent years, particularly under flashy past president Ramon Calderon, and his replacement, Florentino Perez, Madrid has assembled big names who then proved to be less than the sum of their parts.
This year, Mourinho has steadily moved away from that, signing a combination of old hands — hardman Ricardo Carvalho was a favorite at Chelsea — and young, technically gifted midfielders in Germans Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil. Oezil, in particular, is considered a game-changer; many saw his magic at this past World Cup.
Real is already under the gun. They dropped points on the weekend with a tepid 0-0 showing against Real Mallorca that signaled just how much work Mourinho has remaining ahead of him. Mourinho has counseled patience, but some are already questioning if his grinding style of play is what fans of the team really want to see week in and week out, even if it ultimately gets results.
The teams’ European fate may well be decided on October 19, when they meet for the first leg in Champions League play. The head-to-head record back to 1956, when Real beat AC Milan 5-4 in the European Cup semifinals over two legs.
Since then, Real Madrid has a slight edge in competitive matches, winning five and losing four against the Milan giants. As a general rule, the teams play tough, competitive matches.
Everyone remembers the classic that was the 1989 European Cup semifinal, where Milan stunned Real 5-0 at the San Siro. Milan’s goals came at the feet of names that are now legendary: Ruud Gullit, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Roberto Donadoni. This was against a Madrid team with Hugo Sanchez, Berndt Schuster and Martin Vasquez, mind you.
No one will expect such a showpiece this time around, but everyone expects tension. Both teams have everything on the line this year, and neither is prepared to see another season end without a major trophy in the case.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.