Milan stands in way of Barça’s Champions League progress

Milan stands in way of Barça’s Champions League progress

BARCELONA - The Associated Press
Milan stands in way of Barça’s Champions League progress

Barcelona’s Iniesta celebrates his goal against Bilbao during a La Liga game. REUTERS photo

Barcelona has to find a way to break down AC Milan’s stubborn defense tonight in order to avoid exiting to Italian opposition again and repeating its only Champions League failure under coach Pep Guardiola.

A scoreless draw in the first leg of their quarterfinal has set the scene for a must-win match for Barcelona, which has twice won the competition since Guardiola took charge three seasons ago. The only blight on that record was exiting to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan two years ago in the semifinals.

Barcelona is hoping the a home field at Camp Nou will better cater to their explosive attack after the club officially protested to UEFA over the San Siro turf, on which several players lost their footing and kicked up clumps of grass.

Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to Camp Nou for the first time since leaving Barcelona in 2010, after missing the teams’ 2-2 draw there in the group stage with an injury. Milan’s attack could be boosted by the return of Alexandre Pato, who scored in the group-stage match in September.

“He returned on Sunday after being sidelined one month, had his first training session and in Barcelona he’ll have his second one. We’ll evaluate him after that,” Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said on Monday. “I’ve brought five strikers to Barcelona and one will have to watch from the stands.” Pato struck in the opening minutes of that game, and the Rossoneri then scored a stoppage-time equalizer that serves as a reminder of the Italian champions’ abilities.

“We may dominate but you can never be sure because in any moment they can strike back,” said Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez, whose team fell one goal short of progressing against Inter two years ago. “It’s going to be a very difficult match. They won’t make it easy for us and we’re going to have to play a great game.” Barcelona fullback Adriano and midfielder Ibrahim Afellay are available, while David Villa and Eric Abdial remain sidelined. Midfielder Cesc Fabregas and defender Carles Puyol were rested for Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao with Milan in mind.

Playmaking midfielder Xavi Hernandez seems to be the biggest question mark after missing Sunday’s training session, reportedly because of a nagging calf problem.

Milan has bigger injury worries with Thiago Silva and Mark van Bommel out injured, while goalkeeper Christian Abbiati and midfielder Antonio Nocerino should be fit despite being seen limping after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Catania.

“We have to play like we did at the San Siro and, above all, do all we can to keep Barca from scoring. That will give us a chance of advancing,” Allegri said. “It will be important knowing when to attack and when to defend.

“Barcelona is still the best team in the world but inside the match there will be two or three moments we’ll have to understand and (take advantage) of.” Lionel Messi can match Thierry Henry’s Champions League total of 50 goals - third best behind Raul Gonzalez and Ruud van Nistelrooy - by scoring for the 20th time in 11 games tonight.

Barcelona is unbeaten in 11 matches - with 10 victories - and hasn’t lost at the Camp Nou for 51 games, dating back to September 2010. It hasn’t lost to Milan in nearly eight years and is trying to reach the Champions League semifinals for the fifth successive year, which would equal the record set by Real Madrid between 1956-60.