AC Milan shift their attention to the UEFA Europa League as they travel to Belgrade on Thursday to face Crvena Zvezda in the Round of 32.

Spezia landed one of the most shocking results in European football this season when they registered a 2-0 victory over AC Milan on the weekend. It was a devastating result for the Rossoneri, who have now lost their place at the top of the Serie A table. On Thursday, however, they will have the opportunity to right the wrongs and create a new momentum as they face Crvena Zvezda in the UEFA Europa League.

Better known as Red Star Belgrade, the Serbians are always tricky opponents especially at the Rajko Mitic Stadium, which was previously known as Red Star Stadium. They had also performed quite well in the group stages, succumbing to just one defeat in six matches and finishing the table with a healthy four-point lead over third-placed Slovan Liberec.

AC Milan, on paper, had a decent campaign as well, topping the Group H with 13 points on the board – two ahead of second-placed LOSC Lille. The Rossoneri, though, were humbled by a shock defeat at the hands of the Ligue 1 giants earlier in the campaign, but they had recovered well, notably winning their last two league matches.

Thursday night’s affair in Belgrade will be a difficult one for Stefano Pioli, as his side face off against Inter Milan on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see how they go about their business in this one. And here, at The Hard Tackle, we are taking a closer look at these two sides before their encounter this midweek.

Team News & Tactics

Crvena Zvezda

Crvena head coach Dejan Stankovic primarily prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation with the double-pivot mainly looking to instil stability in the middle of the park. However, he is also open to employing a three-man backline against certain oppositions, like he did against Hoffenheim in the group stage.

As for Milan, they also like to play with a 4-2-3-1 which means Stankovic will have the liberty to retain his preferred shape. There will be usual tweaks in their approach, however, and a three-man backline isn’t out of the question considering the fact their opposition does like to create numerical superiority in the final third.

Hence, we expect the home side to once again deploy a back three of Milos Degenek, Nemanja Milunovic and Milos Rodic. They are set to receive additional support from the two wing-backs in Milan Gajic and Mirko Ivanic, though the two are likely to be camped inside their own defensive third most of the time rather than venturing forward.

Sekou Sanogo, Njegos Petrovic should form the second line of press, as usual, with Guelor Kanga operating in a slightly advanced position, looking to provide the support for the two forwards in El Fardou Ben and Milan Pavkov.

Probable Lineup (3-5-2): Borjan; Degenek, Milunovic, Rodic; Ivanic, Sanogo, Petrovic, Kanga, Gajic; Ben, Pavkov

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AC Milan

Wholesale changes could be in order for an AC Milan side that is hoping to avoid any injuries ahead of their derby on Sunday. There won’t be any changes in the usual tactics, however, with Pioli looking to continue with his 4-2-3-1 formation.

Diego Dalot is likely to be axed from the starting eleven following a disappointing performance against Spezia. Pioli may also have to rest Davide Calabria, which means Pierre Kalulu could brace himself for a rare start at right-back.

Theo Hernandez, though, will have to continue on the opposite flank as the Italian tactician continues with his left-sided overload that should see the former Real Madrid full-back venture forward more often while Kalulu remains deep.

Elsewhere in defence, Simon Kjaer might not be risked in this game, thus paving the way for Fikayo Tomori to operate at the heart of the Milan backline alongside Alessio Romagnoli while Gianluigi Donnarumma should retain his place in goal, ahead of Ciprian Tatarusanu.

Soualiho Meita is tipped for his first European appearance for Milan this midweek as Pioli looks to rest Franck Kessie. He should link-up with Ismael Bennacer in the double-pivot, as the duo look to control possession and keep the opposition deep in their lines.

The rest is up to a weakened Milan attack that features the likes of Samu Castillejo, Rade Krunic and Ante Rebic sd the creative trifecta, with Mario Mandzukic starts in the number nine role. It could be a part of Pioli’s massive overhaul as the Italian looks give star players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Rafael Leao some added time to recuperate ahead of the Milan derby.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Donnarumma; Kalulu, Tomori, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Meite, Bennacer; Castillejo, Krunic, Rebic; Mandzukic

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Key Stats

  • FK Crvena Zvezda have never beaten Milan in a European match (including qualifiers), drawing twice and losing twice in four previous meetings.
  • The last meeting between Crvena Zvezda and Milan was in August 2006 in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers, with Milan winning 2-1 with goals from Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf in Belgrade.
  • Crvena Zvezda’s 14 UEFA Europa League matches have seen just 19 goals scored with five of them ending goalless, including their last two.
  • Milan are looking to win three consecutive matches in major UEFA European competition for the first time since winning four in a row between September and November 2008.
  • During the group stages, no Milan player created more chances (five), had more shots (ten) or more touches in the opposition box (21) than Samu Castillejo.

Player to Watch

Mario Mandzukic

Juventus' forward Mario Mandzukic looks on before the International Champions Cup football match between Atletico Madrid v Juventus on August 10, 2019 in Solna outside Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Mandzukic hoping to impress. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Mandzukic’s addition to the Milan side during the January transfer window was a smart piece of business by the Serie A giants. The Croat has a lot of experience at the highest level of football, especially on the European stage where he has won the Champions League title with FC Bayern.

Mandzukic, though, is yet to really kickstart his career at Milan, featuring in just 76 minutes of league football. So this game serves as an ideal opportunity for him to showcase his quality and become a useful figure in Pioli’s setup, especially during the remainder of the campaign, with the striker having a legitimate chance of becoming the first-choice forward in cup competitions.

In a depleted Milan attack, Mandzukic’s ability to operate as a target man should also become useful for the visitors as they hope to get back to winning ways this midweek.

Prediction

Crvena Zvezda 0-3 AC Milan

Despite their dominance in the domestic league, Crvena Zvezda haven’t really performed well going forward in European competitions and have failed to score in their last two matches. And it is hard to see them cause too many problems even for the patchwork Milan defence.

The Rossoneri, though, do have problems of their own and their rotated XI could have a difficult time getting the better of the home side, especially after a demoralising 2-0 defeat to Spezia. However, we do expect them to come through, with Mandzukic, in particular, likely to play a starring role.

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