x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

AC Milan will have to dig deep for Arsenal challenge

As the San Siro team prepares for a visit from the London side in the Champions League they will have to utilise their full squad.

AC Milan’s Maxi Lopez, centre, might not make the starting XI tonight, but his goal and assist in the win against Udinese at the weekend has assured him in the squad.
AC Milan’s Maxi Lopez, centre, might not make the starting XI tonight, but his goal and assist in the win against Udinese at the weekend has assured him in the squad.

The mark of a champion side is to win matches even when the team are playing poorly.

That was about the kindest compliment that could be paid to AC Milan at the end of their victory at Udinese on Saturday night, a transformation from 1-0 down for the best part of an hour to 2-1 winners to climb to the top of Serie A.

The face another stern challenge tonight when they face Arsenal in the Champions League.

Clarence Seedorf, the Milan veteran, has warned his teammates to be wary of the threat posed by the Gunners at San Siro.

"Every year, Arsenal take part in the Champions League to win it," the 35-year-old midfielder told Sky Sports.

"They have the right combination of young and experienced players. They are one of the sides to beat."

To progress AC Milan will have to beat an English side for the first time since they edged Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final.

The Italians will welcome back Zlatan Ibrahimovic after a domestic ban and the Sweden striker believes that Milan have the players to see off the Arsenal challenge.

"You win titles because you play with champions - they are the people that allow you to win, it is not an individual matter," Ibrahimovic said.

"My goal has always been to become as complete a player as possible. I have succeeded, I know what I can do and I am ready to sacrifice for the good of the team. You do not win because you are No 1, but because the team is No 1."

The excuses for something less than vintage against Udinese had been plenty, not least Milan's injury problems.

The list of absentees that Massimiliano Allegri, the head coach, has been leafing through lately is extremely long, and had made him anxious as tonight's resumption of European assignments loomed.

Reno Gattuso and Antonio Cassano have conditions that discourage even optimistic speculation about a return date; Alberto Aquilani, Mathieu Flamini will probably not be available until March.

But, ahead of tonight's game, Allegri hopes that at least two or three out of either the goalkeeper Christian Abbiati, the defender Alessandro Nesta, the midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng and the striker Alex Pato will have recovered enough from recent lay-offs to participate.

Last weekend's game had been a serious test of the squad's strength in depth. The programme ahead promises more of those.

"We showed character at Udine," said Allegri, looking for positives from a display that Arsenal certainly would have noted in as a far as Udinese repeatedly threatened Milan on the counter-attack, troubled them by spreading the ball quickly to the wings, where the London club do have genuine pace.

"Milan on the crest", read the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport on Sunday, its sub-editors pleased to combine the fact that the champions had regained top spot in Serie A with the striking visual similarities of the two goalscorers. Maxi Lopez, who had come off the bench to score, is wearing his blonde hair in high Mohican; Stephan El Shaarwary, who struck the winner, styles his dark hair in a cockatoo-style crest.

"We have more in common than just the hair," Lopez told reporters afterwards. By which, he added, he meant that he and El-Shaarwary both "were young and ambitious." Actually, there are eight years between the young Italian-Egyptian teenager and the 27-year-old Lopez, who joined Milan on loan from Catania last month, and has taken a rather roundabout journey back into Champions League football since made his first, striking impact in the competition a full seven years.

That was with Barcelona, whom Lopez also joined in a winter transfer window, from River Plate in his native Argentina. Lopez struck a significant goal on his debut in the European Cup, a winner in a tense home leg of a knockout tie against Chelsea. But in Barca colours that was to be his highlight. Later that year he would be loaned out to Real Mallorca, and then sold to FC Moscow.

Via Gremio in Brazil - recommended by Ronaldinho, apparently, after the two South Americans struck up a friendship while at Barcelona - he began to rebuild his reputation as a useful all-round striker. Twenty-two Serie A goals at Catania over a season and a half confirmed it sufficiently that Milan's pursuit of Carlos Tevez from Manchester City last month to compensate for the absence of Cassano was less determined than it might have been because Lopez was their alternative.

A goal on his league debut for Milan, and the fact he helped to set up El Shaarwary's strike against Udinese might not be quite enough to put him the starting XI tonight, but Allegri will be pleased to have the striker as an option.

With Ibrahimovic in uncertain form of late, and carrying the now customary psychological burden of his poor record against English teams and notoriety for vanishing from the thick of the action on big Champions League nights, Robinho inconsistent, Pato's fitness in some doubt and Pippo Inzaghi not even on Milan's Champions League roster, the men with the crests may at some point be needed to give Allegri some cutting edge.