Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan
Sunday, September 1, 2013; 18:45 Hrs GMT
The ‘Adriano Galliani’ time of the year is here and as a flurry of transfer news makes the headlines, it seems the loss to Verona on the opening day of the Serie A campaign is an event of the distant past now. On the brighter side, Milan have successfully completed their qualification formalities to the Champions League winning the second leg of the playoff quite comfortably denying PSV any chances to create an upset. Kevin Prince Boateng scored two crucial goals at San Siro only for the fans to learn a couple of days later he had been shipped off to Schalke. Boateng’s parting always looked to be on the cards after having an indifferent season but the sudden news of his transfer did surprise many.
Oddly enough, after refusing to hike their bid to woo Honda away from CSKA, Milan have paid nearly twice that amount to sign Alessandro Matri from Juventus. Bianconeri paid almost the same price to secure Carlos Tevez whereas Tottenham have completed the signing of Christian Eriksen for a price in the same range. The sale of Boateng however has once again fueled the customary rumors of the return of Kaka. Reports in Italian media are also hinting at the Honda deal having fallen out as the transfer window approaches its conclusion.
However, more than analyzing the likeliness of one transfer against another, Max Allegri will be keen on winning the first points in the league as Milan host Cagliari for a Sunday night kick-off. Both the teams had contrasting starts to their respective campaign. While Milan received a very hard reality check on their opener, Cagliari came from behind to beat Atalanta at Is Arenas. But having found some momentum with their win in the pre-European fixture, Milan certainly start as favorites here and by some margin.
Team News & Tactical Brief
After his performance on Wednesday, Boateng would definitely have featured in the lineup but the latest developments have completely changed the equation. Should Allegri continue with the same 4-3-3 formation, Niang is expected to be given a rare start ahead of Robinho. Balotelli and El Shaarawy will naturally select themselves to complete the attacking line.
Super Mario being the attacking mainstay for the Rossoneri, is often made subject to a very hard treatment from the defenders – particularly from the provincial sides since they’re unable to match his technical ability. Against PSV however, Balotelli showed much more tactical awareness and operated from deeper positions being the architect of attacking moves. In order to keep his markers guessing, Balotelli needs to maintain those levels of mobility and Milan will be better off without him being the only point of reference in attack.
Both Abate and De Sciglio were effective going forward during the midweek game and Milan would like to continue stretching the play allowing the fullbacks to overlap the midfield and link up with the forwards in wider positions. Directing the play from the flanks will also mean Radja Nainggolan is kept busy running to win the ball and that won’t allow him the time he likes to play with the ball. The midfield trio of Montolivo, De Jong and Muntari had maintained a very good balance between their attacking and defensive commitments on Wednesday but it is unlikely for Allegri to retain all the three. Andrea Poli was notably impressive in his limited involvement and should replace Muntari in the lineup.
There are issues with the mutual understanding and positional sense as far as Milan’s defensive partnership is concerned but for the lack of a better choice, both Mexes and Zapata should continue to start in the centre. While both have showed glimpses of quality from time to time, neither is exactly reliable – And going by that it’s quite astonishing to see Milan not treating a defensive signing on priority.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-3-3]: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, De Sciglio; Montolivo, De Jong, Poli; Niang, Balotelli, El Shaarawy
The Sardinians finished the last season 11th on the table, comfortably above the relegation battlers largely owing to the consistent showing from their midfield. Strength and industry were two attributes very associative with the Cagliari side of the last season. Diego Lopez is likely to field a 4-3-1-2 formation but one might be little surprised to see the entire midfield line remain committed only to the defensive duties and deny space to the likes of Montolivo, El Shaarawy and Balotelli.
Choking the central midfield for space will naturally force Milan to engineer their attacks from out wide and that might leave their flanks exposed on the counters. Cagliari fullbacks might take advantage of these situations but for the large part of the game as many as seven on-field players will be seen floating inside their own half. Albin Ekdal will be slotted in as trequartista and he will need to be on his toes to get the better of the susceptible looking Milan defence because the opportunities will come few and far between.
Nainggolan had been one of the sought-after midfielders all across the league during the transfer window but he’s stayed put and will one more time be the most crucial cog in the wheel for Lopez. His starting position on the left side of the midfield will ensure some exciting duels with Milan skipper Riccardo Montolivo and few will be surprised to see the Belgian come out on top at times. Skipper Daniele Conti will primarily guard the central defence fielding in the deepest position of the midfield. His primary responsibility for the game will be to track Balotelli’s movements and never allow him too much of space to work around with.
Luca Rossettini and Lorenzo Ariaudo will continue to start in the central defence flanked on the either side by Daniele Dessena who is on loan from Sampdoria and the 18 year old, former Cagliari youth player Nicola Murru. The two man attack will feature Marco Sau and Mauricio Pinilla. Francesco Pisano along with Andrea Cossu remains unavailable for this game nursing an injury.
Probable Starting Lineup [4-3-1-2]: Agazzi; Dessena, Rossettini, Ariaudo, Murru; Cabera, Conti, Nainggolan; Ekdal; Sau, Pinilla
- Milan lost their season opener last week conceding two after scoring first while Cagliari on the other hand, found two after initially going down to register a win.
- Last season, Milan beat Cagliari at San Siro while the game ended on parity in Sardinia.
- Max Allegri has won the Albo Panchina d’Oro (Golden Bench award) during his time at Cagliari.
Players To Watch Out For
It’s hard to look beyond him after the kind of football he played in the midweek to earn Milan a place in the Champions League. Balotelli had had a difficult time battling against a Verona side that was committed to foul him at every single opportunity and things aren’t likely to be much different on Sunday either. Whether he proactively makes a few changes to his game to make an impact despite the opposition’s tactics will be interesting to observe for the fans.
Radja Nainggolan (Cagliari)
Yet another product of the Belgian talent factory – Nainggolan is certain to reach the greatest heights in his professional career. He has been one of the better midfielders in Serie A for last couple of seasons and one reckons this is the season where he truly rises to his potential. A solid performance against one of the biggest clubs in the world can take his confidence to new levels and that is exactly what he’d be aiming at going into this game. Montolivo & co will have their task cut out and they won’t find life easy against Nainggolan.
Milan 3-1 Cagliari
At home, Milan are a force that will be hard to stop. Goals will come despite all the resilience from the visitors. Milan’s approach to the game will allow Cagliari to threaten them on some quick counters every now and then. The hosts’ lack of organization and the characteristic ineptness against set-pieces might allow the Sardinians to put their name on the score-sheet but that might only prove to be a mere consolation – unless of course they are able to score first. Milan chasing the game will make it an interesting proposition but the result shouldn’t differ.