Whereas it initially looked like the goals would come for an AC Milan side that’s dominated possession under Clarence Seedorf, the opposite has happened. Instead of seeing the talents of Mario Balotelli, Kaka, Adel Tarrabt, and (cup-tied) Keisuke Honda shine as the Rossoneri became Serie A’s biggest ball hogs, Milan has been shutout in three of their last four games. Sitting 11th in Italy, Milan’s progress since Max Allegri’s departure has been aesthetic but not practical.
Atlético Madrid, on the other hand, have undergone a minor awakening since their three-game, early February losing streak, even if they still don’t look like their indestructible January selves. Having moved away from the idea that Diego or Jorge Sosa can provide more than depth, Milan’s Tuesday opposition has reverted back to what worked this fall. Even the idea that Barcelona refugee David Villa can form a partnership with Diego Costa has been forgotten in favor of full faith Raúl Garcia, who was in the starting lineup when Atleti played Real Madrid to a 2-2 draw nine days ago. With only a late Cristiano Ronaldo goal keeping them from full points, the Colchoneros again looked like a team that could do damage in UEFA Champions League.
First, Diego Simeone’s side needs to finish off its Round of 16 matchup against Milan, who visit the Vicente Calderón on Tuesday. Down 1-0 after leg one, however, the Rossoneri are on the wrong end of two trends. Short on goals and facing a team that’s rediscovering a dark horse’s form, Milan needs to do more than cash in on some of the promise they’ve shown under Seedorf. They need to do so against a team that’s been among Europe’s best for most of the season.
“When you lose the first leg, it is marvellous to be able to play again in a tie of such importance on the European stage,” Seedorf said, striking an optimistic note on Monday. “We can write history once more. It is always great to play in a stadium like this. We do not have to be worried by the atmosphere. We are ready for this kind of game.”
The easiest way for Milan to transcend Atlético’s advantages is to get transcendent performances from its stars. That starts with Balotelli, who returned this weekend from a shoulder injury incurred in leg one. They’ll need Kaká, who didn’t play this weekend against Udinese, to continue using the time machine he brought out a couple of times at the San Siro. They need Nigel de Jong to be both healthy and destructive in defensive midfield, while Taarabt must make Honda’s absence irrelevant. If all of that happens, Milan has a chance.
“Great players appear in these matches,” Simeone said on Monday. “[Mario] Balotelli is a dominant player, but Milan are dangerous in many other areas. He is dangerous but needs his team-mates around him.”
But Milan also needs Costa, one of the Spain’s leading scorers this season, to go quiet. It needs Diego Godín to be exposed in defense while Thibault Courtois has an off day in goal. It needs Arda Turan to become uninterested or unwilling to create chances, and it need Gabi and Koke’s service to go awry. Milan needs Atlético to have one of the bad days it was having this time last month – the type of result that gave this matchup an aura of doubt when it kicked off three weeks ago.
Since then, Atlético has stabilized, giving Simeone’s side the appearance of a quarterfinalist. Unless Seedorf can finally put all of his pieces together, the Colchoneros will move on.