AC Milan welcome Crvena Zvezda on Thursday hoping to secure a victory that could see them advance through to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Europa League.

Mid-February has been a bit of a difficult period for AC Milan. The Serie A giants have lost their lead at the top of the table and are currently trailing leaders Inter Milan by four points, thanks to back-to-back defeats against Spezia and the Nerazzurri themselves. Last week, they also failed to win away from home to Crvena Zvezda, thanks to a late goal from Milan Pavkov that drew the game 2-2.

The Rossoneri are hoping for an upturn of fortunes as they welcome the Serbians at San Siro on Thursday. The Italians do have the advantage, having netted two away goals in the first leg, meaning even a draw under a 2-2 scoreline should be enough to get them through to the next stage.

For Red Star, their strength at home was already documented and even indicated in the 2-2 draw, back in Belgrade. However, the Serbians will be tested away from home, especially having won just one of their last 12 European adventures to Italian oppositions.

Unlike Milan, though, Crvena Zvezda are in an excellent run of form, having secured nine victories in their last 11 competitive matches. That momentum could be crucial in their bid to secure an upset win over the Serie A giants and here, at The Hard Tackle, we will run the rule over these two sides ahead of their enticing match-up in the Europa League this midweek.

Team News & Tactics

AC Milan

Stefano Pioli may want to make some changes to the side that faced Inter Milan on the weekend. Simon Kjaer, for one, is set to make way for Fikayo Tomori in central defence. The on-loan Chelsea defender’s physicality and overall defensive prowess could be crucial alongside Alessio Romagnoli, as Milan’s main priority will be to retain a clean sheet.

As such, Pioli is set to field the strongest available options elsewhere, with Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria occupying their roles as full-backs. Hernandez was one of the best players in the first leg, is set to act as one of Milan’s main sources of creativity going forward, with his driving runs into the final third.

Calabria, on the other hand, is likely to remain deep as usual, aiding the two central defenders in Milan’s trademark, left-sided overload. Gianluigi Donnarumma is another guaranteed starter for the home side, as the Italian hopes for his first clean sheet in four matches.

Ismael Bennacer remains out for the Rossoneri after picking up another injury blow earlier this month. His absence could leave Milan devoid of creativity in midfield – something Soualiho Meite will be tasked to provide, as his deputy in the middle of the park. He is set to operate alongside Franck Kessie in the double-pivot, although Pioli does have one alternative in Sandro Tonali.

Moving forward, Milan may retain the services of Hakan Calhanoglu, but with Rafael Leao and Ante Rebic likely to settle for a place on the bench, the Turkish international could operate in a wider role. Rade Krunic and Samu Castillejo should complete the creative trifecta that is set to play a key role in supplying Mario Mandzukic.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Donnarumma; Calabria, Tomori, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Meite, Kessie; Castillejo, Krunic, Calhanoglu; Mandzukic

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Crvena Zvezda

Red Star players attacked Milan far more than one had anticipated in the first leg, notably amassing a total of 20 attempts on goal, with an xG ratio of 1.70. That was significantly higher than Milan’s xG allowed tally of just over 1 per game in Serie A this campaign.

However, with this being an away fixture, Crvena Zvezda coach Dejan Stankovic may embrace a more cautious approach. As such, they could employ a deep defensive line during the early stages of the game, hoping to avoid conceding any unnecessary goals. But they are likely to come out all guns blazing once they have sustained the early storm from the home side.

It remains unlikely that the Red Star coach would want to make any radical changes to the side that featured in the first leg. However, he will have to find a replacement for the suspended Milan Rodic, who picked up a red last time out. Milan Gajic may have to operate in that role, which, in turn, should pave the way for Marko Gobeljic to return to the starting eleven as the two look to feature in the wing-back positions.

There should be no changes elsewhere in the backline though while the midfield also picks itself up, with Guelor Kanga and Njegos Petrovic forming the second line of press.

Things do get more interesting in the attacking third where the lone playmaker in Mirko Ivanic usually tends to drop deep if necessary. However, with Red Star needing a goal in this fixture, he may operate in his natural role, hoping to provide the supply for the two central strikers in Ben El Fardou and Milan Pavkov.

Probable Lineup (3-4-1-2): Borjan; Milunovic, Pankov, Degenek; Gobeljic, Kanga, Petrovic, Gajic; Ivanic; El Fardou, Pavkov

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Key Stats

  • Milan have hosted Crvena Zvezda twice before, drawing 1-1 in the European Cup in 1988-89 before beating them 1-0 in a Champions League qualifier in 2006-07, thanks to a Filippo Inzaghi goal.
  • Crvena Zvezda have managed to win only one of their previous 12 European away games against Italian opposition, a 2-0 win over Chievo in the UEFA Cup first round in October 2002.
  • Milan have lost three of their last seven home matches in the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Cup, losing as many times as they did in their first 38 games across those competitions.
  • Crvena Zvezda have scored only three times across their seven away matches in the UEFA Europa League, failing to score at all in five of the last six.
  • Milan have been eliminated from each of their last seven two-legged ties in major European competitions when failing to win the first leg, last progressing from such a position in the 2006-07 UEFA Champions League semi-finals vs Manchester United.

Player to Watch

Samu Castillejo

Milan will look to produce another coherent performance this week. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Can Castillejo once again showcase his quality at San Siro? (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Samu Castillejo has emerged as quite the protagonist for AC Milan in their Europa League campaign this year, having been involved in four goals in seven matches. He even played a crucial role in the second goal of the first leg, as it was his cross that forced Radovan Pankov into scoring an own goal.

The Spaniard hasn’t done much in Serie A, but his quiet cameo in Europe has played a key role in helping Milan steer into the knockout rounds. And the Rossoneri brace themselves for a tricky second leg affair this midweek, Castillejo’s direct style of play, combined with his mazy runs forward are set to serve as one of the prime sources of creativity from the home side.

For Crvena’s part, it will be imperative to keep a close eye on the winger. The key will be to employ a deep defensive line and frustrate the attacker, who is likely to make way for either Alexis Saelemaekers or Jens Petter Hauge in the second half.

Prediction

AC Milan 2-1 Crvena Zvezda

The AC Milan defence has been far from impressive in recent matches, with Alessio Romagnoli, in particular, failing to provide much solidity at the back. It could lead to another fiercely competitive game, with the result likely to be decided on the smallest of margins. The hosts are the favourites due to obvious reasons, but this promises to be a well-balanced and perhaps, a cagey affair.

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