AC Milan’s problems a great chance for Celtic

The last time Celtic traveled to the San Siro they fell to a 1-0 defeat, courtesy of a goal from Filippo Inzaghi, as AC Milan took another step towards winning their group in their quest to become the first team to successfully defend the Champions League.

Celtic, who had beaten the Rossoneri at Parkhead earlier in the season, went on to reach the round of 16 of the competition for the second year running, where they were knocked out by Barcelona, who were still 12 months short of becoming the world’s greatest club.

Almost six years on from that December night, Neil Lennon’s men return to the San Siro for the opening game of Group H which, in keeping with Celtic’s modern tradition in the Champions League, also contains Barcelona as well as four-time winners Ajax.

European football’s landscape has changed immensely since Celtic last faced the seven-time winners and as far as the red and black half of Milan is concerned, the changes have been far from welcome.

Having struggled throughout the second half of the nineties, the new Millennium saw Milan winning European’s elite competition twice in four seasons, with the cataclysmic defeat against Liverpool in Istanbul sandwiched in between.

Milan’s success in Athens against Liverpool in 2007 was, in many ways, the final chapter of one of Europe’s finest teams of the decade as the Rossoneri went from defending champions to also-runs within six years.

The core of the Milan side Celtic had faced in the 2007-08 season gradually became to unravel and Carlo Ancelotti’s departure at the end of 2009 accelerated the dismantling process.

Massimiliano Allegri, who replaced Leonardo as Ancelotti’s successor in 2010, won the Scudetto in his first season at the club but Milan never looked competitive in Europe and they were pipped to the league title in 2012 by a resurgent Juventus side.

Budget restrictions have since seen Milan part ways with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva – the undiscussed heroes of Milan’s last league title – while Andrea Pirlo was allowed to join rivals Juventus in what has proved to be a disastrous error of judgement.

With the heydays of the Berlusconi era firmly behind them, Milan have had to resize their expectations and have become to resemble a sort of Italian version of Arsenal – a team no longer able to compete for silverware and therefore happy to secure Champions League status with a top three finish.

Unlike the North Londoners, who have splashed £42m on Mesut Ozil, Milan have kept their business to a bare minimum in the last couple of years. 

Last season, the arrivals of Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel de Jong and, more importantly, Mario Balotelli galvanised the fans and the team rallied to secure a Champions League spot, but Milan remain desperately short of quality.

This summer, the Rossoneri splashed £10m on Alessandro Matri, a good striker but hardly the sort of player capable of turn Milan into European heavyweights one again, while former San Siro hero Kaka returned after a troublesome spell at Real Madrid.

The Brazilian’s second coming has been put on hold for the moment as his fragile muscles have given way yet again, meaning the former Madrid man will be sidelined for at least a month.

Kaka joins an already overcrowded treatment room which, ahead of tonight’s game, hosts 10 first team players – alongside Kaka and Montolivo, Milan are missing Robinho, defenders Ignazio Abate, Andrea De Sciglio, Daniele Bonera and Matias Silvestre while injuries to Stephan El Shaarawy and Giampaolo Pazzini limit Allegri’s options up-front.

Having picked up a meagre four points in three Serie A games, Milan go into tonight’s clash knowing anything but a positive result would make their qualification a not-so-straightforward argument.

Celtic’s away record in Europe remains poor – the Hoops have won only once away from Parkhead in the competition proper in the last six seasons – and  have never won against Milan at the San Siro, scoring only once in four attempts.

Neil Lennon’s men, however, know they might never get a better chance than tonight.

Can Celtic cause an upset tonight? What are their chances of qualifying? Leave your comments below or get in touch via our Twitter or Facebook account, don’t be afraid to have your say. 

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