AC Milan and Manchester United prepare to renew hostilities in the second leg of their Europa League last-16 battle at San Siro on Thursday evening.
The two sides played out a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Old Trafford, as Amad Diallo’s intelligent header was cancelled out by Simon Kjaer’s late equaliser for Milan.
A long-awaited Serie A crown appears to be eluding AC Milan once more, as Matteo Politano got the goal which propelled Napoli to a 1-0 win on the San Siro turf as the Rossoneri fell nine points behind bitter rivals Inter Milan in the race for glory.
With only two wins to boast from their last nine in all competitions, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-less Milan have not just struggled domestically, but continentally as well, as they scraped past Crvena Zvezda on away goals before salvaging a draw in the dying embers of last week’s battle at Old Trafford.
It was a tale of two headers in Manchester as teenage starlet Diallo saw his uncharacteristic effort loop over Gianluigi Donnarumma into the net, but Milan and their never-say-die attitude claimed what could prove to be a crucial away goal two minutes into second-half injury time, as Kjaer directed a header goalwards and Dean Henderson could not keep it out.
There were certainly questions over the England international’s goalkeeping, but Pioli will give no thought to the manner of the goal as Milan hope to produce the goods on home soil – something which has proved easier said than done over the past few weeks.
Indeed, the Rossoneri’s two victories in their underwhelming spell have both come on rival territory, and they have now tried and failed to come up trumps at home four times in a row since beating Crotone 4-0 on February 7, so another disheartening early exit from continental competition for the once-feared Milan would not have the San Siro faithful brimming with confidence heading into the spring.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must still be wondering how his captain Harry Maguire managed to inexplicably miss from less than a yard out in the first leg, and the Norwegian manager must now aim to draw on his own experiences of heroic European nights in order to keep United’s hopes of silverware alive.
The Red Devils had to rely on an unfortunate own goal from West Ham’s defensive stalwart Craig Dawson at the weekend, but they nevertheless demonstrated their defensive prowess to keep a fifth clean sheet in six matches and extend their unbeaten streak across all competitions to 13 matches with that narrow 1-0 win on home soil.
However, four of United’s last six outings have ended with the spoils shared and they have notched up a mere four goals in that run – with Edinson Cavani’s injury woes and transfer speculation doing them no favours on that front – but the visitors can at least take solace from the fact that they have scored in all of their 13 Europa League knockout games outside of England and they head into this bout with Australian casino as favourite.
Furthermore, Solskjaer’s charges have become renowned for their remarkable away form this term, with the visitors unbeaten in their last 12 on the road and boasting clean sheets in their last four – certainly a recipe for success against a Milan team who just cannot hack it at home.
Fifteen years ago, supporters would have expected to see these two clubs meet in the final of the Champions League rather than the last-16 of Europe’s secondary competition, but with neither team being the powerhouses that they once were, another shot at continental silverware will pass United or Milan by as their respective managers attempt to restore them to their former glories.
Milan’s main man Ibrahimovic would dearly love to line up against his former employers this week after missing the first leg, but the 39-year-old – who has just earned a recall to the Sweden national team – may only be considered for a spot on the bench after overcoming a thigh problem.
However, two players who missed the first leg in Hakan Calhanoglu and Theo Hernandez are both back in the fold for the hosts, but Ante Rebic’s return against Napoli ended on a sour note as he was sent off – and subsequently hit with a two-game domestic ban – for insulting an official.
However, Rebic could nevertheless be handed the nod up top as Rafael Leao is doubtful with a thigh problem, and it remains to be seen if Alessio Romagnoli and Davide Calabria will be passed fit.
Franck Kessie caught the eye at Old Trafford with his assured display in midfield, and the Ivory Coast international could find himself alongside Soualiho Meite this week if Sandro Tonali once again drops down to the substitutes bench, but Ismael Bennacer is also available once again.
As for United, Cavani, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are all in the travelling party after overcoming various injuries, but the latter is supposedly intent on heading for the exit door after struggling to get a look-in when fully fit.
Anthony Martial’s absence against West Ham depleted Solskjaer’s striking options further and he has not been passed fit for this game, while Eric Bailly will not be involved either.
David de Gea has completed a mandatory isolation period after returning from Spain to be with his newborn child, but Henderson is likely to reprise his role in between the sticks in any case.
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AC Milan possible starting lineup:
Donnarumma; Calabria, Tomori, Kjaer, Hernandez; Kessie, Meite; Saelemaekers, Calhanoglu, Krunic; Rebic
Manchester United possible starting lineup:
Henderson; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Telles; Fred, McTominay; Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford; Cavani
On paper, Milan’s home woes and United’s away day delights should see the Red Devils march to a convincing success, but coming out on top at San Siro is not quite as simple as that. With both teams set to welcome key players back from injury who missed the first leg, a fierce and pulsating showdown is set to occur this week, and the hosts do have the advantage of an away goal.
However, the expected return of Cavani will give United an added dimension to their attack, and while Milan should be able to call upon Ibrahimovic for some inspiration, we are backing Solskjaer’s men to book their spot in the quarter-finals.