Good afternoon. Sid Lowe will be online from 3pm to take part in a live webchat.
When the Champions League last-16 fixtures were drawn, José Mourinho said the world would be waiting for Real Madrid's tie with Manchester United. Mourinho is always entertaining, but tonight's game in Milan is arguably more glamorous. Milan have won the European Cup seven times and this Barcelona team are up there with the best sides in history.
Any way you look at it, Barcelona are favourites. They are 12 points clear at the top of the La Liga; Milan are third in Serie A. They are favourites to win the competition; Milan can be backed at 100-1. Complacency could affect Barcelona, but even that seems unlikely. "When the top teams meet in the knock-out phase there are no favourites," says Barcelona assistant boss Jordi Roura, who is leading the club in Tito Vilanova's absence.
Perhaps the home team should adopt the advice of Silvio Berlusconi, who says they need to man-mark Lionel Messi. As if that hasn't been tried before. Perhaps Sid Lowe will have some ideas. He'll be along at 3pm to take your questions.
If you have any questions about the tie, drop them into the comments section below.
Sid is online and taking questions:
Buonjorno! Fingers crossed that this wifi works. Although fingers crossed may not be the best way to type.
Anyway: Italian cafe? Check. Gazzetta dello Sport? Check. Feel just a little AC Jimbo? Checkaroo.
your last article on Barça. Like you, I think they will get past Milan, but if they don't raise their game significantly, which team can beat them in the next round?"EminEmma29 asks: "I read
If they don't sort out some of their recent problems I think there are a handful of teams that can cause them difficulties. Real Madrid (or Manchester United?) are an obvious one. Bayern Munich of course. And I was hugely impressed with Dortmund in the group stage.
MrMondypops asks: "Do you think Malaga will turn it around against Porto?"
Isco was very interesting after the game. He talked about the intensity of Porto's play, about how they simply did not let Malaga (a team that generally play at a relatively low pace) settle, find passes, combine. The question is, I guess, whether they can do that at the Rosaleda. I think the risk for Malaga is that Porto score. And, honestly, I can see that happening.
Patelt79 asks: "Are Barcelona going in this game with a hint of over confidence?"
Quite the opposite: they have been desperately trying to play down their favouritism. Protest too much? Perhaps, yes. And deep down perhaps they do think they are the better side. But that is at least in part because, well, they are. And because Milan too have been going on about how they don't have much chance.
Snafuclarke asks: "What do you think is within the realms of the possible for Milan tonight? Ordinarily you'd have to say that any Milan side would be capable of recording the 1-0 or 2-0 win which would constitute a great result at this stage at home in Europe. However, the side they're playing doesn't really do ordinary, so is it a question of Milan looking to simply still be 'in the tie' for the return at the Nou Camp?"
If Milan can stop Barcelona scoring, they'll be very happy. I don't see this as being necessarily the cake walk for Barcelona that some are assuming, but they have now gone unbeaten in seven at San Siro against Milan – four wins, three draws.
Jandito22 asks: "What's the current situation with Gerard Deulofeu? He's been doing well for the B team and has quite a bit of hype behind him, yet he's only made a handful of first team appearances. Barcelona's wide men haven't exactly been in great form this year. Could we get a look at Deulofeu in place of Alexis or Pedro anytime soon?"
He's the player, as you probably know, who they are the most excited about from the youth system. Extremely talented, if a little individualistic. I think the intention is for him to get some first-team minutes, but he has had fewer than most people expected. Vicente del Bosque dropped a fascinating hint in an interview we did with him on Al Primer Toque: he said that he was going to call him up for the Spain squad and was advised against it (by Barcelona).
Nico1866 asks: "Will the lack of competition at the top of La Liga start to erode the quality of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the long term? Could this be the season in which they start to pull out the Old Firm excuses of 'we play crap teams every week making it harder to step in in Europe'?"
I think this is a real danger and one that, for reasons I do not full understand, Madrid and Barcelona don't seem to see or don't want to see. But – caveat time – the rest of the teams in Spain are not necessarily weak (Athletic and Atlético showed that last year and Malaga walked their Champions League group). They are getting weakened constantly, so the process has begun and I think it may well impinge on the big two at some stage. Their sights are set on a European league. The problem they have is that the big teams they think would go with them from Germany, England, etc, are not so keen to leave their domestic leagues behind as Madrid and Barcelona are. Incidentally, the other day I was reading a book on Real Madrid from 1961 and they were talking about the inevitability of a European league in 'a few years'. Nothing has changed. Speaking of which, they were also slagging off the English style compared to Spain as too rigid, not creative enough, a bit neanderthal.
Arglc asks: "Would Barcelona be a match for Bayern Munich on current form?"
I guess it depends what current form means. Right now, if they faced each other, I'd be tempted to have Bayern down as favourites.
KevinDavies14 asks: "Is Barcelona v Bayern now the purists' final? Imagine, the sexiness of Schweinsteiger against the bastard Busquets – delicious! Plus don't you think Kroos would be a better fit for Barcelona than Fabregas?"
Cesc is playing really well this year and he also ticks the emotional boxes. He's Catalan, a youth teamer, a Barcelona fan, has the style of play (that said, he is more 'vertical' than most his team mates). But, yeah, I've really liked Kroos when I've seen him.
ColdCoffee writes: "I agreed with your article from earlier today. Barcelona look vulnerable this season. I also find it interesting that they have had no superiority over Real Madrid whatsoever this season on a head-to-head basis.
Clearly, as you say, they have not been sufficiently challenged. But don't you think in a way that's just what they need? Isn't it true that in the post-Rijkaard era, Barcelona have been at their very best when challenged?"
Not quite true: in the first of the two Super Cup games they battered Madrid (and were then close to battered back in the second game). I think you're probably right; they need that competitive push to bring th ebest out of them. Focus improves, the speed of the passing, the finishing too.
CosmicTrigger asks: "Is Manuel Pellegrini crazy enough to go to Chelsea?"
Yes. And I'm not sure I'd call it crazy. He might win something big, he will be able to build a side and have money to spend and he is, at least for now, of the kind of style that (we're told) Roman Abramovich likes. And, if he gets sacked one day, well, it probably won't do much harm. He would like a stable, long-term project, sure. But he may believe that he can get that by winning and winning well and would be prepared to risk it. If it's a risk.
Elscollonsdelgos declares: "A lot has been said about Barça not being what they were during Guardiola's first years but I kind of like the way they stick with Vilanova and then Roure when any other club would have rushed out and brought a big name in. I also think they've played some pretty good football this season- 65 points can't be a fluke- despite the slapstick defence when they panic. Sid, can you answer these statements as if they were questions?"
Yes, of course. Tito Vilanova appeared to forfeit a little bit of control in return for more decisiveness. They allowed the other team to play a tad more so that they could open the game up more. It felt, in that sense, perhaps a little less dogmatic.
Also, the defensive problems early in the season: well, they had most their defenders out. It's forgotten that Adriano (!) played at centre-back, for example, against Madrid. Now the defence is back (ish ... Puyol/Pique do not partner each other as often as they would like) but it's the traditional time of year that they dip (January-February) and they have lacked that real need which might improve them. Valdes' form has dipped too.
FernandoPando asks: "What do you make of the rumors of Tito Vilanova's keen interest in David Luiz as a long-term replacement for Puyol? I seem to recall you rubbishing this notion a few months ago. Also, although Lionel Messi has been as prolific with goals this season, he seems either less inclined or less capable of going on those mazy runs that made him such a unique and special player. Is this the result of his role in Tito's system or is it wear and tear?"
I wasn't aware of the Luiz interest, so I'm not sure I rubbished it. If it is true, I don't really see it. He's be expensive. As for Messi: in recent weeks he has looked a fraction tired to me (and still breaks records every week).
BobbyWestside asks: "What are the best grounds to go to in Spain?"
If full and making noise etc, Sevilla or Betis perhaps – after San Mames.
Cooldudehenry writess: "I was sad to see Bojan Krkic leave Barça. He really burst on to the scene but now seems to have been forgotten. Where did things go wrong for him and has he had any impact in Italy? Could he come back and bite his former club on the bum tonight?"
He says he does not expect to start. I hope he gets minutes. He remains popular and played a key role at the end of that Zlatan season. But there was a slight sense of him just not quite being good enough; he didn't impose hismelf, there was not much edge. He's a very good player, but perhaps not quite a great one.
ThemOpinions asks: "For a team with a figurehead as iconic for his 'play on' mentality as Lionel Messi, why do Busquets, Pedro, Sanchez and Alves find it so hard to follow that example?"
I'm not sure I'd include Pedro, but I guess it's just different personalities really. And different skill sets and positions. There is interest in stopping at times for Busquets and Alves as they have left space behind them, perhaps, while Messi always assumes that he can get the ball back and score. I suppose if you're the best player you just want to play.
I don't think Busquets is quite as bad as he is made out (that iconic image of him peeking through his fingers follows him round) and is improving. He does still stop and 'draw fouls' a bit though. Great player too.
Sammiethet0rt0ise asks: "Is Tito Vilanova's more "direct" approach an attempt to meld the joyous qualities of counterattacking football as evidenced by Madrid and Dortmund among others, with the tried and tested pressing, patience game? Is it surprising to you that more teams don't strive towards this coalescence – is fitness the only mitigating factor?"
I think you may be right. I certainly think he was trying to bring other teams out a bit. It's hard to marry both styles but up to a point all teams try to do that (where possible). Barcelona used to have more of an outlet with Henry and Eto'o. Messi conditions them a hell of a lot in that sense.
United We Stand podcast last week. How much of the Premier League do you watch? We manage to watch a lot of Spanish football here thanks to Sky. Do broadcasters not show as many games in Spain or is it just a case of the Premier League not floating your boat?"MeerkatUtdFC says: "I thoroughly enjoyed your insightful and extended appearance on the
Not as much as i would like. Time really. A weekend already spent watching 10, 12 hours of football doesn't have much room for much more. The Premier League is shown here (well, Spain. I don't know about Italy) and enjoyed a lot.
Fotobirajesh writes: "Nobody seems to discuss the issues Barca are facing because of the absence of Tito Vilanova. Nor are Barca making it like a big issue or excuse. Any other club, I am sure, would have made it a big excuse and might have even gone for an interim coach."
Emotionally it may well be quite hard to discuss the impact of his absence because no one wants to pressure him back or make him feel like he is somehow at fault. Also, although there have been faults in their play, they are winning and, mostly, playing pretty well.
CavalierDisregard writes: "Both Real and Barça are said to be keen admirers of Gareth Bale and could bid for him in the summer. Are they really as keen as the British media say? What do you think the chances of one of them putting in a bid for him, considering how much he is going to cost?"
Real Madrid certainly are. And take into account the fact that they fear that losing Ronaldo is a real possibility. Barcelona doubted Bale's ability to play in tight spaces (hence signing Alba) so unless they have come to see him as a player for a different position – higher up the pitch – I don't see it. Also, he will be VERY expensive and Barcelona will be reluctant to pay that, not least because they have a deal in place for Neymar.
Mexile asks: "How long do you think Barça will persevere with Alexis? There is obviously a lot of willingness for him to succeed and he does do some stuff well but surely they need to spread the scoring out a bit more? And doesn't Villa deserve a longer stretch in the starting line-up (I know he's just been ill) as he scores goals."
It's baffling. He has been so bad it's hard/funny to watch (delete as appropriate). I suspect that playing with Messi may even make him feel worse. It's hard to see what the best way of backing out of this is now. He works hard, his runs open space for others, but he's dreadful at the moment, his confidence seems to have done, he's slow... Cue a goal tonight.
Max Tomlinson asks: "With El Shaarawy doing so well in Serie A, does he pose Barcelona any major threat in attack – or do you think his inexperience will see him drift out of the game (assuming he starts)?"
Gazzetta have him down as starting and Allegri said yesterday that he would. He is very much seen as their great hope. I'm not sure it is a case of him drifting out of the game as how much of the ball Barcelona allow Milan to have. He may be forced into a lot of running with little reward. The question will be, rather than a lack of presence, how decisive he is when he does have some presence.
Valdes in Sports Illustrated. How are the Spanish press treating him at the moment? For such a key part of their treble team, I would have thought people would wish him well for the years of loyal service. Plus, as good as he is, there are better keepers out there."Jonwoo writes: "I read your column on
Yes, they did. He was mostly understood, cheered at next game, etc. Media (under influence?) spectacularly misjudged the public mood on Valdes. In terms of his replacement, Reina is one to keep an eye on.
ForeBarca asks: "Is Barcelona's greatest weakness its defense, specifically Puyol's age? Or the inability of Mascherano to effectively deal with high balls in the goal area?"
Puyol's fitness (which is linked to age) may be a huge factor, yes. When the first choice back four is available (and fully fit) there is little wrong with the defence. But Barcelona's style implies risks. They're vulnerable in the air but, curiously, the stats show that they have not conceded a header (or is it just one?) in the league this year.
Docster72 asks: "If you were a coach playing Barcelona, how would you approach it tactically?"
An oversimplistic reply, but... Target the space behind Alves. Have a centre-forward curling into that space for early(ish) ball. Put pressure on Mascherano (if he's at centre-back) and, to a lesser extent, Alves and Alba. Force Messi deeper, where he feels very happy but is less damaging. Encourage them on to you but do not try to spend whole game sitting in your six yard box. Be lucky.
Gaitlinger10 asks: "Do you think David Villa is being wasted (when fit) in this Barcelona team and do you think he should move on after this season?"
Yes and I think he will. I hope he gets the chance to make a point before he goes.
Mattiwatton15to1 asks: "What do you think the coming years hold for Valencia? A return to the days when they challenged Barcelona and Real Madrid domestically, while competing at the highest level in Europe? A continuation of recent history – perennial Champions League qualifiers and 'best of the rest' in Spain? Or a sharp plummet to Deportivo-style oblivion?"
The game against PSG revealed their reality: they'll be a big(ish) club with good(ish) players but real challenging is, sadly, beyond them. And a real threat to their existence hasn't gone yet
MacChelsea asks: "Could Pellegrini leave Malaga for Chelsea?"
I'd say there's a reasonable chance. It's early and things are not decided but I can see: Ancelotti at Real Madrid, Mourinho at PSG and Pellegrini at Chelsea.
Mellman says: "Chelsea have been unfairly maligned for their performances against Barcelona in the past as (a) they have a very good record (winning two knockout ties losing one), and (b) Messi has never scored against them. Not many teams can say that. Luck is often sighted as a reason for their Champions League success. I feel this is very unfair, it is not luck when perhaps the best player ever hasn't scored against you, it is just the fact that the team defended excellently."
Chelsea did some things very well last year and those records are, as you say, impressive. In fact, their more impressive over a period of time than last year specifically. But, honestly, last year they were very fortunate indeed.
RealRegista asks: "When discussing the greatest centre-backs of all time, why people always overlook Puyol, who has won everything?"
Good question. I guess because people want something extra ... the glide of Franz Beckenbauer perhaps, or the rugged toughness of Franco Baresi (mind you, Puyol has that). I don't think many Barcelona fans doubt his worth. You've posed a good question there: who are the best centre-backs ever?
Sech asks: "Have you been surprised by the way Milan have bounced back from a bad start this season? I thought they had had it, with the mediocre squad they have and the summer exodus that preceded it. Will Dani Alves have a hard time against El-Sharaawy?"
Yes, although I say that as someone who is reluctant to draw too clear a conclusion on them because I do not get to see enough of them. El Sharaawy will probably not only be Alves's problem but Puyol's and Busquet's too. Again, it may come down to possesion: Barcelona's style is as much about protecting themsleves as attacking the opposition.
LSE2002 asks: "Do you think we could have more European competitions in 20 years' time? Perhaps a Champions League and an FA Cup-style knockout?"
Perhaps, who knows? Or maybe it won't just be Europe. Travelling is easier than ever before. but there are a huge number of issues and interests to overcome for that to become a reality. And, as I mentioned, it's not a new idea. Uefa and the clubs will have another battle at some stage.
Oliver507 writes: "The intense pressing game high up the pitch, which was a hallmark of the early Guardiola years, has been far less ubiquitous and intense. Is this due to the fact that Barcelona have been hurt on the counterattack (Chelsea CL 2012 and Real Madrid in the Super Cup in 2012 in the Bernabéu), or due to the high toll it takes on mind and body and is therefore only really used in certain matches?"
I think it's a physical and emotional question. I also think it is about the types of players. Iniesta is in that forward line now, Messi is drifting away from the front. It's not the same as it was when Eto'o was there, obviously, or even a year or so ago with, say, Villa or with Alexis at his fittest. Pedro still does it, but the pressure is not so high up the pitch now. I also think there's an element of tactical decision: they are *allowing* teams to come out a little further now and *then* pressuring.
Sid has signed off:
Thanks everyone. Enjoy the game. Arriverderchi!
For some more reading, here's today's just-before-Fiver.