AC Milan faces Lionel Messi, Barcelona in Champions League
After clambering its way back up the Serie A table, the true test of AC Milan's revival will come against Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday.
Milan had an awful start to the season and, lying 15th in the Serie A after eight matches, seemed to be heading for a relegation fight rather than a title battle.
However, Milan has since climbed to third - although it is still 11 points behind leader Juventus.
Barcelona poses Milan's sternest test yet. It commands a healthy double-digit lead in the Spanish league and is well on course to recover the domestic title. That means it can devote all its attention to Europe's top competition as it searches for its fourth title in eight seasons.
"We're doing well at the moment,'' midfielder Riccardo Montolivo said. "I've grown and the team has grown compared to beginning of season, and the match comes at the best time. We know we're facing the best team in world, with the best players in the world. We know it's going to be tough but we can't wait to get on the pitch because it will be a great match and a great test for us to measure ourselves against them.''
Milan will be underdogs against a Barcelona side which has lost only twice all season in the league and in Europe.
It will be the fifth time the two teams meet in the Champions League at San Siro and Milan has only won one of those encounters, in the group stage in the 2004-05 season.
"I really don't agree that we're favorites,'' Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura said. "Milan is one of the clubs with the most trophies in the world. It is one of the most competitive teams and it is always hard to play at San Siro. We've always suffered here.''
It is the fifth time the two sides have met in two seasons. After a draw and a win for Barcelona in the group stages last year, Massimiliano Allegri's team held the Spanish side to an entertaining goalless draw at San Siro in the first leg of the quarterfinal before succumbing 3-1 at the Camp Nou.
"We know they're the strongest team in the world at the moment and we know what difficulties we're going to face,'' Allegri said. "Against big teams like Milan, Real Madrid, they dominate possession, they have an average of 65 percent possession, we have to try to be good and limit that statistic. We have to be good when we have the ball because Barca defensively will concede something.''
Milan is still waiting on the fitness of top scorer Stephan El Shaarawy, who has been the club's most prolific and active player this season with more than 2,000 minutes of game time yielding 17 goals.
El Shaarawy came off in the draw against Cagliari with a knee injury but is back in training and Milan is hopeful the 20-year-old Italian will be fit to start.
"El Shaarawy is back in the group, training,'' Allegri said. "I'll decide after practice what's the best formation to start with. If he's fine, he'll start.''
It will be special for Milan striker Bojan Krkic, who progressed through the ranks at Barcelona, scoring 41 goals in 163 appearances.
Mario Balotelli, who has netted four goals in three matches since his tumultuous Manchester City career ended last month, will not be eligible to play because he has already represented his former club in the competition.
Xavi Hernandez is ready to play after being sidelined for the last two weeks with a left calf injury. Striker David Villa, however, did not make the squad after spending last week in and out of the hospital with a painful case of kidney stones. Defender Adriano will also miss the game with a right leg injury.
Barcelona will have Lionel Messi, however.
"He is a key player for the team, because of what he brings and has to offer, goals, because he is decisive,'' Barcelona striker Pedro Rodriguez said. "If he isn't there, you notice it. But I don't think we suffer from a dependence on Messi.
"This is a very strong team and while some players stand out, you have to recognize that Messi has gone beyond any other player. He is a key player with a great ambition, someone who wants to do better each day that goes by. We are dealing with numbers that you couldn't imagine.''
Roura will be on the sideline with coach Tito Vilanova receiving treatment in New York after having a second tumor in two years removed from his neck in December. Without Vilanova, Barcelona has avoided a major dip in form.