For want of a better word, there seems to be a collective sense of shock regarding AC Milan’s Europa League last 16 draw against Manchester United.
Perhaps that is very much understandable given how the last couple of weeks has gone for Milan. The Rossoneri secured their progression into the final 16 of the competition last night, but it was far from a straight forward evening at San Siro and did little to quell the doubts that have arisen regarding their performances in the last few games.
Having scored twice in Belgrade last week, Milan knew that they simply had to avoid defeat or a high-scoring draw against Serbian league-leaders in order to progress, but away goals is exactly what they needed to go through after a 3-3 aggregate draw.
The reward – as we found out today – is a two-legged tie versus Manchester United, with the first leg to be played at Old Trafford and the return leg at San Siro a week later. The first game will be played on Thursday 11 March in England, while the return is scheduled for Thursday 18 March.
Hysteria has spawned as a result of the paper that was pulled out of the little ball by former BSC Young Boys star Hakan Yakin, as if the tie is over before a ball has even been kicked. The general reaction gauged from social media and even sections of the press is that this is a bad draw for Milan at the wrong time, but there are plenty of reasons why it could be a blessing.
Firstly, let’s look at the best-case scenario from all of this, which would be Milan beating United and progressing into the quarter-finals. We know that Pioli’s men have shown their capabilities over the last 12 months and an ability to compete with any side on their day – at least domestically – so if the team can click into gear against Roma, Udinese and Hellas Verona they could have some nice momentum heading into the game.
If Milan then get through and beat the Red Devils then they will have proven not only that they can stand toe-to-toe with one of the bigger and better elite European sides, but they will also announce themselves as a re-emerging power of football on the continent in the process.
Moreover, beating one of the pre-tournament favourites in United would definitely be as good an indication as any that the Diavolo can go on and win it, even if there are still some good sides left in the competition such as Spurs, Arsenal, Ajax and Villarreal.
If Milan were to not progress and were to lose over two legs, then it is better to do so in the last 16 stage rather then getting to the semi-finals or even the final and losing to a team like United should it emerge that they are stronger.
Inter found out last season that to expend so much energy going after a trophy that distracts from other objectives (in our case a top four finish) and falling at a late hurdle is a real blow.
Another positive note is that the tie promises to be a fantastic test of just where Milan are at ahead of a potential return to the Champions League in 2021-22, which of course will be secured a top four finish is confirmed or the Europa League is conquered.
We have seen the squad beat just about every team put in front of them post-lockdown including Juventus, Inter, Napoli, Roma and Lazio, but there is something about earning European pedigree that is exciting and emboldening in equal measure, and what better opponent to face than one that not only has so much prestige but also a lot of exciting young quality in their ranks?
[Via Opta] pic.twitter.com/EjpX62u5YC
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) February 26, 2021
There are plenty of fascinating battles within the latest set of threads in the tapestry of this great fixture. Franck Kessie will face one of his toughest challenges yet in keeping Bruno Fernandes quiet, Ismael Bennacer could have to deal with Paul Pogba and Davide Calabria against Marcus Rashford promises to test the mettle of the former.
Loanee Fikayo Tomori, Simon Kjaer and/or Alessio Romagnoli will have to deal with an excellent young talent in Mason Greenwood, a veteran presence in Edinson Cavani or even the pace of Anthony Martial.
At the other end, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic against Hakan Calhanoglu is a tasty battle, as is Theo Hernandez vs. Aaron Wan Bissaka plus Zlatan Ibrahimovic – against his former side – squaring off against Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
The potential drawbacks? Well, getting knocked out of the competition is obviously one given that Elliott Management have made it a major objective in terms of collecting revenue and improving European ranking, so that is one.
The other is that a heavy defeat could potentially further damage the morale of a squad that is currently experiencing a delicate moment, but facing such a tie in fear in the first place would be a mistake. It feels like the Arsenal draw in the 2017-18 season in which Milan paid for their naive and deferent approach.
Sky reporter Peppe Di Stefano said it best: “The DNA of Milan is a European DNA, they have never been afraid of anything. The draw must be accepted and faced.”
If you can’t get excited for a game like this as a fan or even as a neutral, it begs the question if we are allowed to be enthusiastic at all.