Of all the potential marquee matches in the UEFA Champions League this fall, none will surpass the opening day meeting between Barcelona and AC Milan. The two giants have been drawn together in Group H and as fate would have it, they will be playing at the Camp Nou on September 13. At a much lower level, the other two teams in the group, FC BATE Borisov of Belarus and FC Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic meet at Eden in Prague. Any result other than the big two finishing atop the group would be an earth-shattering upset.
Barcelona has hardly stood still after winning last year’s competition. To an already formidable squad they added Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas and Udinese wing Alexis Sanchez. They didn’t really need any more top notch midfielders, but Pep Guardiola has been trying to bring Fabregas back to the club for at least two years. Sanchez fits perfectly into Barcelona’s style of quick passing, rapid movement, and immediate ball recovery after a rare loss of possession.
The champions are loaded at every position with first class talent. That talent began warming up for the AC Milan game by ripping Villarreal 5-0 to open the domestic league. Lionel Messi got off to a flying start with two goals in another overwhelming performance. Messi is joined by no fewer than eight members of Spain’s World Cup winning team. French defender Eric Abidal has also returned to full fitness after surgery to remove a tumor in the spring. Even the great AC Milan will probably not be able to deny Barcelona winning this group.
Milan won the Serie A last year, dethroning Internazionale after languishing behind their city rivals for several years. Massimiliano Allegri starts his second full year in charge with a solid team, led by strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato. Midfielder Alberto Aquilani has joined after an unhappy spell with Liverpool to solidify the midfield.
Like any top Italian team, AC Milan will be stout in defense. Thiago Silva anchors the back line with Italian internationals Gianluca Zambrotti and Daniele Bonera among the regulars. They haven’t spent as excessively as Inter, but AC Milan now has a team that has played together consistently. Few teams will relish facing them in Europe. Allegri assessed the group on UEFA.com this way, “We got the strongest team of all but there are two other teams that we should be able to beat in our group. Honestly, qualification is within our reach in this group. The games against Barcelona are always fascinating ones; we do all we can to be ready for them. A match like that can give the team great motivation. I’m sure we will be at our very best when we face them.”
As for BATE and Plzen, they will be largely unknown to Barcelona, Milan, and most of the world. Plzen has an entire roster of Czech players except for three Slovakians. Their captain, thirty-six year old Pavel Horvath was absolutely elated with the draw. He told UEFA.com, “This is a fantastic draw. I am as excited as I was just after Wednesday’s game. I played a friendly against Barcelona during my time at Sporting [Clube de Portugal]. Playing against them and AC Milan in the Champions League is the adventure of a lifetime for all of us, whatever the result. It is a reward for our success in the preliminary rounds. We have nothing to lose. I hope we can fight with BATE for third place.”
A team with nothing to lose in front of its own fans will try to put on a show. That could result in some lopsided scores or an upset the players can tell their grandchildren about. The joy was no less palpable from BATE Borisov midfielder Filip Rudik who added, “I wanted to face Barcelona and all my friends asked me to bring them to Belarus. Here you are! I was a bit nervous when there were just two balls left. I wanted Ruud Gullit to draw us last and I was lucky. I was thinking of Barcelona even before the Sturm match. Viktoria are also strong opponents as they beat KÃ¸benhavn, but we have our Mario SimiÄ‡. Will he score against Barcelona? Let’s see if we can get the ball into their half first. We have already discussed our tactics for when we play them; we’ll kick the ball out of play and hope for the best.” For two small teams, they will each have two huge games to present to their home fans before returning to Earth and as Horvath said, fighting for third place.
*****Sources: www.uefa.com, www.espn.com, www.soccerway.com