“This victory was crucial for us, as we couldn’t afford to throw away the hard work that we’d achieved last season from January to May, especially our great comeback two minutes from time versus Siena”,said AC Milan’s vice president Adriano Galliani following the Rossoneri’s 3-0 victory over PSV Eindhoven in the second leg of the Champions League playoff match.
So, after doing it the hard way, Milan qualified for the group stages of this year’s Champions League and although they did so thanks to a 4-1 aggregate victory, the results on paper certainly did not match the team’s overall performance over the two legs. The issues that haunted them last season, in particular their porous defense threatened to come to the surface during the two clashes against Phillip Cocu’s young team and one was left wondering had they had more experienced players at their disposal, would the Rossoneri’s European campaign have been over before it started?
Their progress to the knockout rounds definitely won’t be an easy one. Paired in Group H along with Ajax, Celtic, and Barcelona, Massimiliano Allegri’s men have their work cut out for them. Last year, they barely scraped through the group stages with a measly eight points, the lowest of any team to go into the round of 16 before being eliminated 4-2 on aggregate by none other than seemingly perpetual opponents Barcelona.
This year, their group has won a whopping 16 CL titles among them (with Milan leading the way with seven, followed by Ajax and Barcelona with four and Celtic with one) so there is no “easy” opponent, no team that they’re a sure-fire bet to get all six points against, in essence, no freebie. All four teams certainly have the ability to get through to the knockout rounds and like a bizarre version of six degrees of separation, all have faced each other at some point in European football’s premier continental competition.
Milan was defeated by Ajax back in in the 1995 CL final, while they trounced Barcelona a year earlier 4-0 and so far, have faced off against the Catalans six time in just the past two seasons. As for Celtic, this must feel like déjà vu for their supporters—the Bhoys faced off against Barcelona in the group stages last season and handed them their first defeat of their European campaign on a historic night that just happened to be the club’s 125th birthday. They also defeated Ajax back in 2001 (3-1, first leg, 3-2 on aggregate) during the play-off round and qualified for the group stage where they only missed out on the knock-out rounds by one point.
But, interesting connections and history aside, here is a quick breakdown of their opponents and whom they’ll have to keep a close eye on if they want to qualify for the knockout stages.
First up on the list for the Rossoneri is Scottish side Celtic, who like Milan, had to qualify for the CL group stages through a two-legged playoff this season, and last season, and were knocked out of the round of 16 by Juventus 5-0 on aggregate. The Bhoys literally scraped through by the skin of their teeth after squeezing by Kazakhstan outfit Shakhter Karagandy, which surprised many with a 2-0 win over Neil Lennon’s men in the away fixture by defeating their opponents at home by a score of 3-0, including a last-gasp goal by James Forrest to deny their opponents the chance to become the first Kazakh team to get through to the group stages.
While Celtic have lost some key players, including Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson this summer, they certainly won’t be a pushover. Milan will certainly have to keep a close eye on Forrest, whose pace and power will certainly ask quite a few questions of their back-line which has been suspect so far in their league fixtures this season. If they wish to get a positive result against the Scottish Premiership champions, they’ll have to make sure that their back four are alert and keep things as airtight as possible.
The Rossoneri then take on Ajax a fortnight later at their home ground in what should be a highly entertaining fixture for both neutrals and fans alike. Frank de Boer’s men have gone from strength to strength over the past few seasons, winning the last three consecutive Eredivisie titles. However, they will be looking to redeem themselves after their dismal performances in the Champions League, in which they failed to get out of the group stages for the past few seasons, despite their dominance in domestic competition.
Like Celtic, Ajax have lost some important players, notably Danish starlet Christian Eriksen to Tottenham, but have been bolstered by the arrival of former seemingly eternal on loan Barcelona striker Bojan, who left Milan after failing to convince the Rossoneri management to buy him outright. The Spanish international will be keen to put in a good shift against two of his former sides to make them perhaps regret their decision not to make them a permanent fixture in their starting XI. Additionally, current captain Siem De Jong will have to step up in order inspire his team to end their poor run of form in the Champions League. The 24-year-old Swiss born Dutch international can be deployed as an attacking midfielder or a striker and on a good day both can certainly cause some problems for Milan who have looked less than confident at times both in their CL fixtures and against the likes of Cagliari and Hellas Verona so far this season.
Finally, they face off against Lionel Messi and company at the San Siro on 22 October, and with the signing of rising Brazilian star Neymar, there is no shortage of players that will definitely cause them quite a bit of headaches over 180 minutes. Simply put, every player will have to put in the best shift of his life if they want to cause an upset, although the return of fan favorite and 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka has certainly cheered up some sections of the Rossoneri fan base.
Will the likes of Kaka, Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy be able to inspire the Rossoneri to victory over three difficult sides? Or will the Rossoneri’s CL campaign end in great disappointment?
We’ll just have to wait and see over the next few months—but one thing is certain: Milan certainly have quite a few tough battles looming on the horizon.