AC Milan will be looking to give themselves the best possible chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals with a positive first leg result against Manchester United on Thursday.
The Rossoneri qualified for the last 16 of the competition thanks to a victory over Red Star on away goals after a 3-3 draw on aggregate. A 2-2 result in Belgrade was followed up by a nervy 1-1 at San Siro in the second leg, so Stefano Pioli’s men will have to produce a better showing against the Premier League’s second-placed team.
Pioli revealed his belief that the team are on the right path overall but are still some way off the 2007 side that knocked United out en-route to winning the competition, and he will have several injury problems to deal with.
Game date: Thursday 11 March
Kick-off time: 18:55 (CET)
Venue: Old Trafford
Referee: Tasos Sidiropoulos
Pioli has named just a 19-man squad for the first leg of the tie against the Red Devils as an injury crisis has gripped the team again. Theo Hernandez, Ismael Bennacer, Hakan Calhanoglu, Ante Rebic, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Mandzukic not available for the game.
The latest from Sky Italia (via MilanNews) is that Gianluigi Donnarumma will be protected by a back four of Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Fikayo Tomori and Diogo Dalot.
In midfield it seems as though Franck Kessie and Soualiho Meite will be the pairing of choice. Sandro Tonali remained on the bench in Verona and most thought he would return to play from the first minute at Old Trafford, but it appears he will not be risked.
Alexis Saelemaekers, Brahim Diaz and Rade Krunic should act in the attacking trident behind centre-forward Rafael Leao, with some question marks as to who will be on the wing out of the Bosnian and the Spaniard.
Probably Milan XI (4-2-3-1): G. Donnarumma; Calabria, Kjaer, Tomori, Dalot; Meite, Kessie; Saelemaekers, Diaz, Krunic; Leao.
Manchester United are in a very similar position to Milan in many respects. They are second in the table to their city rivals and the title appears to be too big an ask, but they are not yet certain of a top four spot and face fifth-placed West Ham in between the two legs, just like how the Rossoneri play Napoli on Sunday.
They come into this game in good form having beaten Manchester City 2-0 at the weekend thanks to goals from Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw, also having kept four clean sheets in their last four games across all competitions.
According to the latest from Sky Sports (as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer backed up in his pre-match press conference), Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani are set to miss the game on Thursday night. Dean Henderson will again play in place of David De Gea, while Donny Van De Beek, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Phil Jones remain absent.
Probable Man Utd XI (4-2-3-1): Henderson; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; Fred, McTominay; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial.
Head to head
The signs are actually good for the Rossoneri. In fact, Manchester United have been eliminated in four of their five UEFA European knockout ties against Milan. No side has eliminated the Red Devils more often, with Real Madrid also having done it four times.
The first time United knocked Milan out came in the most recent tie as they overturned a 3-2 first leg deficit to win 4-0 at Old Trafford. The time before that, Milan prevailed 5-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals of the Champions League after ‘La Partita Perfetta’ (the perfect game) in the second leg at San Siro.
Milan beat United 2-0 on aggregate in the last 16 of the 2004-05 Champions League with 1-0 wins in each game, and also prevailed in the semi-final meetings in the European Cup in the 1950s and 1960s.
➤ This will be the 11th meeting between Manchester United and Milan in European competition, with all 10 previous meetings coming in the European Cup/Champions League.
➤ Manchester United have been eliminated from four of their five knockout ties with Milan, with no side eliminating the Red Devils more often in UEFA European competition (also Real Madrid, 4, excluding Super Cups).
➤ In their last meeting in March 2010, Manchester United won 4-0 against Milan – it is the Italians’ joint-heaviest defeat in major UEFA European competition (excluding Super Cups).
➤ When reaching the last-16 stage of a major European competition, Milan have been eliminated on six of the last seven occasions, this after progressing from nine consecutive such ties from 1988-2007. Their only progression over this period was against Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League in 2011-12.
➤ Despite playing in six UEFA Champions League group stage matches this season, Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes is the top scorer in the UEFA Europa League since the start of last season, with 10 goals in 12 appearances at an average of 94 minutes per goal.
Ones to watch
For the Red Devils, the man of the hour is certainly Bruno Fernandes. The 26-year-old playmaker actually could have joined Milan on two separate occasions, but now he has made Old Trafford his own Theatre of Dreams.
Fernandes made the €80m move from Sporting CP in his native Portugal and arrived with the pressure to perform given his price tag, but perform he has. The former Sampdoria and Udinese player is like Calhanoglu is to Milan in the sense that he is the man everything goes through, with 23 goals and 13 assists in 41 appearances across all competitions this season.
The strength for United is undoubtedly their pace, and Milan’s back line will have to be at their best to neutralise the acceleration and explosiveness of the likes of Dan James, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial who are expected to occupy the other four forward positions.
In order to do that, Fikayo Tomori will have to pull out another excellent performance just as he has done in the times he has been called upon so far since joining on loan from Chelsea. If he and Dalot can replicate what they did in Verona against a very quick striker in Kevin Lasagna, Milan have half a chance of a clean sheet.
At the other end, eyes will be on Rafael Leao to see if he can produce a big performance in another test of his maturity. When he doesn’t get much of the ball the Portuguese youngster appears to become anonymous in games, but at the Bentegodi we saw the front four interchange positions and cause issues with Ibrahimovic, Calhanoglu, Mandzukic et al.
Finally, this will be an audition of sorts for Dalot. Given that he is on loan from United but eligible to play – and there is nothing in place that would see his loan move automatically become permanent – he is essentially playing to try and prove to both teams he is worth backing for the future.
It feels like too much to ask for Milan to come away from the north of England with a positive result given all the injury problems and the lack of genuine options on the bench. An away goal would be a real luxury but again it seems difficult to imagine against a side in excellent defensive form. Forgive our pessimistic nature on this one.
Prediction: Man Utd 2-0 Milan