AC Milan will be aiming to consolidate their place atop Group F of the UEFA Europa League when they welcome Real Betis to San Siro on Thursday

The UEFA Europa League group stage will reach its midway point on Thursday, with teams from all 12 groups competing within a four-hour span. One of the most intriguing ties on the night will feature AC Milan and Real Betis, who will be vying for the spot on top of Group F at San Siro.

As things stand, Milan are currently leading the Group F standings following a perfect start to their UEFA Europa League campaign. The Rossoneri are closely followed by Real Betis, who are unbeaten but dropped points on Matchday 1 when they played out a goalless draw against Olympiacos.

The two sides though, haven’t quite been on song in domestic football. In fact, AC Milan and Real Betis have almost identical records, with both sides amassing 12 points so far in their respective leagues. On closer observation, however, one can notice what exactly separates the two.

Real Betis have found goals hard to come by, having only managed to find the back of the net five times in La Liga. AC Milan, on the other hand, need to find a way to keep a lid at the back, with the Rossoneri shipping in 11 goals from their eight Serie A outings.

AC Milan and Real Betis have locked horns on just two occasions previously, when they met home and away in the 1977-78 European Cup Winners’ Cup. Back then, the Italian outfit had won the home leg 2-1, and ahead of their latest meeting, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the UEFA Europa League tie.

Team News & Tactics

AC Milan

AC Milan have been in their elements in the UEFA Europa League. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

AC Milan have been in their elements in the UEFA Europa League. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Gennarro Gatusso has a few pressing injury concerns to deal with ahead of the visit of Real Betis. On Thursday, the AC Milan boss is set to be without the services of as many as five first-team players due to various issues, with Andrea Conti being a long-term absentee.

Apart from the Italian defender, the likes of Ivan Strinic and Ricardo Montolivo were also already on the treatment table. But, AC Milan have receive a huge blow ahead of Thursday’s tie, with Hakan Calhanoglu (toe) and Lucas Biglia (ankle) set to miss out against Real Betis.

In Biglia’s absence, Tiemoue Bakayoko is the likeliest to be named in the starting lineup, with the French midfielder having the perfect opportunity to make an impression and atone for his previous errors. The Chelsea loanee should be joined by the consistent duo of Franck Kessie and Giacomo Bonaventura.

Up ahead in attack, the absence of Calhanoglu should be filled by Samu Castillejo, with Fabio Borini the alternative to the Spaniard. The other two spots are expected to be filled up by Gonzalo Higuain and Suso, with Patrick Cutrone being the impact substitute, if the need presents itself.

At the back, Davide Calabria and Alessio Romagnoli are certain starters, while Diego Laxalt should start in place of Ricardo Rodriguez. The final slot in the backline could be taken up by Mattia Caldara, with Gattuso hinting that the summer signing could feature despite not being fully fit. Behind the backline, Pepe Reina should start in goal once again.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Reina; Calabria, Caldara, Romagnoli, Laxalt; Kessie, Bakayoko, Bonaventura; Suso, Higuain, Castillejo

AC Milan

Real Betis

Like his opposite number, Quique Setien has a number of issues hampering his preparations ahead of the trip to Milan. On Thursday, the Real Betis manager will be without three first-team players, with Javi Garcia, Joaquin and Andres Guardado not part of the travelling squad due to the injuries they have recently sustained.

Meanwhile, Setien should once again line his side up in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with the usually resilient back-three being his side’s strong point. Marc Bartra will be the leader in defence, with the experienced duo of Sidnei and Aissa Mandi giving him company in the three-man backline that will likely provide cover to Joel Robles.

Guardado’s absence, meanwhile, means Giovani Lo Celso will get another start, with Sergio Canales dropping down to the middle of the park alongside William Carvalho. The wing-backs will likely be Antonio Barragan and Junior Firpo, with the duo’s output being key to their side’s fortunes.

Another player who needs to step up is summer signing Takashi Inui, who hasn’t quite got going since his move from Eibar. Striker Loren Moron also needs to pull his weight, having only found the back of the net twice so far this season.

Probable Lineup (3-4-2-1): Robles; Bartra, Mandi, Sidnei; Barragan, Carvalho, Canales, Firpo; Lo Celso, Inui; Moron

Betis

Key Stats

  • AC Milan and Real Betis have previously been drawn together on just one occasion previously, when they met in the 1977-78 European Cup Winners’ Cup first round, with the Andalusian side prevailing 3-2 on aggregate.
  • Real Betis last faced Italian opposition in Europe in the 1998-99 season, when they were eliminated by Bologna in the Last 16 of the UEFA Cup.
  • AC Milan have only been beaten once at home at San Siro in the UEFA Europa League (W4 D1), losing 0-2 against Arsenal in March this year.
  • Real Betis have kept a clean sheet in each of their last three away games in the UEFA Europa League. This is their longest ever run without conceding on their travels in European competition.
  • In fact, Real Betis have lost only one of their last eight games on the road in Europe (W4 D3), conceding no more than once in any of these games.

Player to Watch

Marc Bartra

Bartra has been a revelation for Real Betis. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Bartra has been a revelation for Real Betis. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Joining a side for whom defence was not exactly a strong suit last season, Bartra’s addition has gone a long way in solidifying the Real Betis backline. The Barcelona academy graduate has instantaneously become a leader in defence for the Andalusian outfit.

Against an AC Milan side that hasn’t struggled to hold its own in front of goal, Bartra’s influence at the back will be key for Real Betis. Should they manage to keep a lid on the Rossoneri’s offensive output, the Beticos might fancy their chances of grabbing all three points on Thursday.

Prediction

AC Milan 1-1 Real Betis

This match at San Siro pits two sides that have had similar fortunes but have undertaken polar opposite styles to go about it. Real Betis are a solid outfit that finds goals hard to come by. AC Milan are prolific, but need to plug the holes at the back. The contrasting styles makes for an intriguing battle that should be battled hard in the midfield.

Goals though, should be hard to come by in this match, even if it isn’t short of action. Taking all things into account, however, there should be very little to separate the sides, and it will be down to slim margins as far as the final result is concerned. The Hard Tackle predicts a 1-1 draw on Thursday.

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