x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Balance tilts from AC Milan to Real Madrid

The Champions League tussle between two of Europe's heavyweights is eagerly anticipated with the side from Spain the stronger.

Real Madrid, in white, were dominant against AC Milan in their home leg a fortnight ago.
Real Madrid, in white, were dominant against AC Milan in their home leg a fortnight ago.

MILAN // A year to the day since they last met at the San Siro, AC Milan and Real Madrid again have the privilege of staging the most resonant of the week's Champions League meetings.

The structure of the competition is such that these heavyweight encounters are no longer such rarities as they used to be, but the danger that repetition jades public enthusiasm still seems a distant threat.

In 2009, this fixture commanded a higher Spanish television audience than any other European match apart from Barcelona in the Champions League final.

Twelve months ago, the balance of authority looked very different. Real had been beaten in the previous meeting, in Spain, by Milan; this time, the return heaps far more pressure on the Italians, who lost 2-0 a fortnight ago in Madrid, and left the Bernabeu stadium privately relieved that the damage had been limited to just a pair of goals, so emphatic had been Real's superiority.

Last year's Milan-Real featured Kaka's "homecoming" to the San Siro, just four months after Milan had sold him to Real, for a fee of more than €60 million (Dh306m). He was generously applauded by his former loyalists, and felt, he said afterwards, increasingly comfortable in a Real team who would draw 1-1 with Milan.

Kaka now? An afterthought - injured long-term and apparently surplus - at a Real Madrid who have the momentum of a speeding juggernaut.

They are unbeaten this season in all three competitions in which they are involved. They are top of Champions League Group G and their 3-1 win at Hercules in the Primera Liga, which they lead, at the weekend took their run of victories in league and European competition to six.

Their current goal-rush stands at a striking 19 in their last four league outings. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored nine times in his last four Champions League and Primera Liga games.

And just for good measure, Real's cheerleaders in the Spanish press point out that the last time Jose Mourinho, the Real head coach, went to San Siro as the "away" manager, his team thumped Milan 4-0.

That was last August, in the Milan derby, towards the beginning of Inter Milan's treble trophy-winning campaign.

Milan, for their part, appear bruised. Defeat at home against Juventus at the weekend once again highlighted a languor in Milan's approach work, which had also been a symptom of the defeat at the Bernabeu.

"I would not compare the two games," Massimiliano Allegri, the Milan head coach, said. "They were completely different. The result against Juve did not reflect what happened on the field, but we did suffer for some individual errors."

Allegri also woke up on Monday morning to reports that Ronaldinho, absent with injury at the weekend, had been complaining to friends about Milan's tactics against Juventus.

The Brazilian denied the stories, and hastily let it be known he would be battling to regain sufficient fitness to "be able to play against Madrid and help the team".

Thiago Silva, the central defender, and Gianluca Zambrotta, the right-back, are also on the mend and hoping to be available.

What is clear is that Mourinho, new to Real in the summer and the beneficiary of several signings, knows his strongest XI more clearly than Allegri, who is also in his first season at Milan and, like Mourinho, has a strengthened squad.

While Allegri still looks for ways to dovetail Alexandre Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldinho, Mourinho delights in the efficient functioning of the trio of Ronaldo, and newcomers Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria.

Their success has made the position of Kaka look extremely vulnerable. The former Milan favourite is recuperating until the new year, but should Real continue to grow the way they have been it will hard for him to see a way into Mourinho's XI.

Which brings us to Robinho, a Brazilian whose influence at Milan has been stop-start so far. Two weeks ago, his reception at Real, whom he left in the summer of 2008, was everything that Kaka's at San Siro, a year ago, was not.

The Madrid crowd whistled Robinho shrilly and ferociously when he came on a substitute, with the match all but lost.

Memories of his departure from the Spanish capital, which the player pushed for, are still fresh.

This would be a suitable evening for Robinho to show Real the best of what he can still do, and to convince the many doubters at Milan that he can contribute valuably to the Allegri era.

But even at home, it is hard to make Milan favourites.



11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1