It could prove to be a pivotal moment in the Italian Serie A title race -- Juventus escaped with a 1-1 draw at AC Milan on Saturday after Sulley Muntari's first-half goal was controversially disallowed despite clearly crossing the line.
"The system rewards the audacious away from home." So says the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, hoping to bag a goal or two at the San Siro and set up a slightly more relaxed return leg in north London (where Milan failed to score against Tottenham Hotspur last year). Milan's last home Champions League game was a see-sawing 2-3 defeat to Barcelona, while Arsenal's previous travels took them to Greece, where Olympiacos took advantage of a weakened side. This time Wenger will have added audacity in the shape of Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, while Milan have Alexandre Pato and Kevin Prince-Boateng back from injury.
Italian champions AC Milan climbed to the top of Serie A for the first time this season on Friday with a 2-0 win over 10-man Genoa that was delayed for 10 minutes due to supporters fighting outside the stadium.
Ask anybody who's done it, and they'll tell you that sustaining success is much harder than achieving it in the first place. The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann refused ever to spend longer than three years at a club because he felt that after that he could no longer motivate players. It may be that in the modern world of soccer in which money begets money, success is easier to sustain than previously, at least on a domestic level. On a European scale what that means is a cluster of perhaps eight or so super powers constantly battling for the Champions League, which is surely the main reason no side has successfully defended the title since the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi in 1990.
What makes a great season? If it's the quality of soccer played, then this has been a dismal year for Serie A, something shown up by the performances of Italian clubs in European competition. Internazionale limps on in the Champions League, somehow in the last eight despite a back line about as well-drilled as a class of 5-year-olds on their first school trip. However, AC Milan and Roma went out in the last 16 and Italian interest in the Europa League ended when Napoli lost to Villarreal in the last 32. Juventus and Palermo didn't even make it out of the groups.
Mathieu Flamini owes his AC Milan captain Gennaro Gattuso a debt of gratitude. So outrageous was Gattuso's behavior in the first leg of Milan's 0-1 Champions League Round of 16 tie against Tottenham Hotspur -- when he first slapped and then head-butted the visitors' assistant coach Joe Jordan, for which he landed a five-match ban -- that Flamini¹s own moment of madness was mentioned only in passing.
In terms of tactics, the most important factor in Tottenham Hotspur's victory over AC Milan last week was that its wide players were able to exploit the width left by Milan's narrowness. As a corollary to that, Spurs had the pace and energy to ensure that its numerical disadvantage in central areas didn't mean it had to cede control over possession. Milan's only three league defeats this season have come against sides who play with attacking width -- Cesena and Juventus -- and Roma, a team that usually deploys a 4-3-1-2, but deployed its trequartista, Jeremy Menes, in wide areas in that game.
This is Tottenham's biggest match for almost 50 years: the first leg of a knock-out tie in Europe's biggest cup competition. Gareth Bale definitely won't be playing, Luka Modric is a doubt and Jermaine Jenas is suspended, but Rafael van der Vaart is fit, and Harry Redknapp is sticking steadfastly to the club's principles: "Attacking football is what got us here in the first place," he insists. "We have had a go all through this competition so we will have a right go again at San Siro."
1. Lionel Messi will break more records and persuade Pep to stay. Messi may not win the FIFA Ballon D'Or for the world's best player -- if only because FIFA's new involvement in the award will ensure it goes to a World Cup winner -- but with 60 goals in 57 Barcelona appearances in 2010, he surely deserves it. He also sets up goals as readily as he scores them. While Barcelona is favored to retain its La Liga title and win the Champions League, Messi's form might have more far-reaching consequences. Coach Pep Guardiola's contract expires at the end of this season, and there have been reports of interest from Inter Milan and Chelsea. Talks with new president Sandro Rosell are scheduled for early 2011, and a five-year deal will be put on the table. Rosell need only say one thing to get his man: "There is only one Lionel Messi in football today. He needs you and you need him."
Six weeks can be an eternity in soccer and in politics. On July 20, AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi showed up at the opening of the club's training camp and made one blunder after the other. For a man who is usually such a natural and effective communicator, it was an all-out debacle. Witness his pronouncements:
Is Ronaldinho finally about to deliver? When the Brazilian ace was formally "presented" to the AC Milan faithful last year, he was greeted at the San Siro like some sort of all-conquering hero, wooed by pulsating samba rhythms, a firework display and a 30,000-strong crowd.
Where have all the wonder teams gone? There was a time -- perhaps there still is that time -- when the Serie A championship was totally dominated by the three superpowers: Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus. Not only has this trio won 26 of the last 33 league titles, it has also tended (at least one has) to utterly dominate the season, home and away.
Spend some time in the inner sanctum of AC Milan's high-security hotel floor, and you'll see soccer royalty up close and personal. Up walks Ronaldinho, the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, with a smile and a "Bom día." Here comes Clarence Seedorf, the four-time Champions League winner, with a handshake and tales of meeting Nelson Mandela.
It seemed the 2008-09 season was barely seconds over before AC Milan turned just about everything on its head. Bad enough Captain Courageous, Paolo Maldini, has finally (at the age of almost 41) opted to retire, but next season, the Rossoneri will also be without two key figures of recent seasons: coach Carlo Ancelotti and Brazilian ace Kaká, who have left for Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively.