As Harry Redknapp takes Tottenham into the knockout stages of the Champions League with a return to Italian soil, David Swan of
It has taken him some time, but new Coach Massimiliano Allegri, appointed last June, has finally moulded this Milan into the team he desires. They operate efficiently in his favoured 4-3-1-2, work hard for each other, and have immense quality in attack to win games, something they will need against Tottenham in the first leg of their Champions League tie.
The insistence on hard work has led to one high-profile casualty in Ronaldinho. Allegri lost patience with the Brazilian’s poor work ethic, benching him after the home match against Real Madrid in November before selling him in January. But far from missing his talent, Milan benefitted from his absence, with a more compact Rossoneri unit having formed, that so far has not lost an away game since that match with Madrid
It means the first leg against Tottenham, at San Siro, could well be the most important for both teams. Fortunately for Spurs, Milan’s record at home is not quite so impressive. Juventus, Ajax (albeit in a meaningless game) and Roma have all left San Siro with victories, while various other teams have come away with draws already this season.
Results like those have primarily been gained through counter-attacking football. The onus on Milan to attack and break down the opposition has left them incredibly vulnerable on the break, particularly early in the season. Allegri has since reduced that threat quite significantly – moving Andrea Pirlo away from his position in front of the defence and using a defensive midfielder in that role instead has helped – but there are still occasions when they are left exposed from attacking moves. Antonio Di Natale took full advantage when Udinese were the visitors, and only Milan’s individual quality prevented their opponents from winning a game that ended 4-4 a few weeks ago.
Width has also caused one or two problems for the Rossoneri. The inherently narrow 4-3-1-2 means teams who play with genuine wide midfielders, as Tottenham do, have a lot of space to run into and attack the full-backs, easily Milan’s weakest position. Ignazio Abate, a converted right-winger, has been first-choice at right-back this season, but he only started training again last Friday having been out for three weeks with injury. It therefore remains to be seen whether Allegri will throw him straight back into the first-team on Tuesday evening, or stick with Massimo Oddo. Abate is not the greatest defender, but his speed will be vital in dealing with the pace that runs through the Spurs side – no other right-back in the squad is anywhere near as quick as the 24-year-old – and if he is unable to start, he will be a loss.
Right-back is not the only area with injury concerns. Milan will miss left-back Gianluca Zambrotta, and midfielders Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo and Kevin-Prince Boateng. With Gennaro Gattuso and Mathieu Flamini certain to start, it means Allegri has two options for his third and final slot in midfield. The first is to use centre-back Thiago Silva in front of the defence, which the Coach described as a “real possibility” after Saturday’s 4-0 win over Parma, with Clarence Seedorf as the trequartista (behind the strikers). The second is to use Robinho in the hole, as Allegri has many times this season, and deploy Seedorf in midfield.
The most likely option is the first one, mainly due to the fact he sees Robinho as a forward who “is useful in some games as trequartista.” Seedorf would also provide additional defensive coverage playing behind the strikers (as opposed to a forward performing the same role), filling up space in midfield and allowing Flamini and Gattuso to help their full-backs, as the latter did when Cristiano Ronaldo came to San Siro, helping Abate double up on the Portuguese star. With Gareth Bale absent, he may only require Flamini to perform that role this time, helping left-back Luca Antonini with Aaron Lennon.
Although this set-up takes Thiago Silva out of defence, it does provide Allegri with a naturally defensive player in midfield to track Rafael van der Vaart. Considering the importance the Coach placed on not conceding when he spoke in his pre-match press conference, it would be a surprise to see Milan line-up differently.
Tactics will play their part, but if Milan are to win, they need Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho to turn up. Accusations have been levelled at both in the past with regard to their performances in big games, and they cannot afford to give critics another 90 minutes with which to fuel those sentiments.
20 Abate – 13 Nesta – 76 Yepes – 77 Antonini
8 Gattuso – 33 Thiago Silva – 16 Flamini
70 Robinho – 11 Ibrahimovic