MILAN - Seven-time winner AC Milan is in the unfamiliar position of being the overwhelming underdog when it hosts Atletico Madrid in the first leg of its Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday.
Atletico's best finish in the competition is runner-up 40 years ago but it is top of the Spanish league along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and qualified from its group with an almost perfect record — slipping in a 1-1 draw at Zenit St. Petersburg.
Milan is going through another transitional year and is under the guidance of inexperienced coach Clarence Seedorf. The Italian team is further hampered by injuries and suspensions. Despite its difficulties, Milan is the only Italian team to progress to the knockout stages. Can it pull off a shock? Here are five things to know about the match:
KAKA CONCERN: Talismanic AC Milan playmaker Kaka expects to be fully fit in time. Kaka recovered from the flu to play in Friday's 1-0 victory over Bologna but had to be replaced 10 minutes from time after injuring his right ankle. The Brazilian returned to training on Monday. "After Friday's win, we're confident and ready for Wednesday," said Kaka, who scored against Celtic in the group stage. AC Milan is without Sulley Muntari and captain Riccardo Montolivo, who are both suspended, and Stephan El Shaarawy, Valter Birsa, Robinho and Bryan Cristante, who are all injured. Cristian Zapata is also doubtful with injury. New signing Keisuke Honda is cup tied, having played in the Champions League this season for CSKA Moscow.
MILAN MISERY: AC Milan looks to the Champions League as a welcome distraction from its domestic woes. Milan lies ninth in the Serie A after the exact same number of wins, draws and defeats — eight. Its mediocre form got coach Massimiliano Allegri sacked at the beginning of the year, and former player Clarence Seedorf replaced him. It is the 37-year-old's first managerial experience. However, Seedorf knows the tournament better than most. The Dutchman lifted the trophy the last time Milan won the competition, in 2007, and is the only player to have won the league with three different clubs — Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan twice. "They are favourites in every area, but the Champions League is something different," Seedorf said. "I am confident but it will be difficult. We need to have a very great game.
"The 2007 Champions League represents the characteristics of this tournament. You can give so much more if you are all together. That year we weren't at the highest level, but we changed in the Champions League. We have to do so again now."
SAN SIRO STAGEFRIGHT? Atletico will be relieved goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will play after a recent dip while the Belgium goalie was sidelined by injury. Courtois has been instrumental in helping Atletico share the lead in the Spanish league and for finishing the league group stage undefeated. The first leg away will not daunt Atletico, their goalkeeper insists. "We won't be intimidated by (the San Siro). We've already managed good results at difficult stadiums such as Sevilla, or Bilbao," Courtois said. "We also went into the group stage with little experience and succeeded. If we maintain the same intensity as we have in the league all season we shouldn't have any problems." Courtois expects his teammates to keep Mario Balotelli from breaking out: "I'm not sure how we'll defend against him, I'm sure the coach knows, however."
ATLETICO'S TWO DIEGOS: While David Villa has returned from injury to be available, Atletico will be leaning on a pair of Brazilian Diegos at San Siro. Striker Diego Costa and midfielder Diego Ribas are expected to be key players. Diego Costa recovered his scoring touch in a 3-0 win over Valladolid on Saturday, while Diego Ribas is showing the form of two seasons ago when he helped Atletico win the Europa League. "I like important games like this. Atletico is a big club and we should be playing these types of games," Diego Costa said. "They certainly motivate you, so going to play at the San Siro will be memorable. We can get a result there."
SIMEONE'S MILAN LINK: Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone knows San Siro well. He spent two seasons there as a player with Inter Milan from 1997-99. In that period Inter drew three times against Milan in the league, winning once. It also suffered a hefty 5-0 defeat in the Italian Cup. Also, Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati spent the 2007-08 season on loan at Atletico.