Champions League Tips: Resurgent Milan aim to stymie Liverpool lift-off

Zlatan Ibrahimović was compared to another Divine Ponytail, the great Roberto Baggio, in Monday's sports papers in Italy
AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimović

There are some mouthwatering clashes to look forward to in Europe this week and Andy Brassell casts his eyes over three of the best, kicking off with AC Milan's trip to Anfield...

"The Rossoneri led Serie A for four months last season, sparking hope of an improbable first scudetto since 2011, but what was arguably more impressive than this was their resolve when it started to go wrong."

A buzz around Group B

Liverpool v AC Milan
Wednesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

The Champions League group stage has the image, for some, of being a soft touch. Well, not this year's Group B. Atlético Madrid have been one of the competition's star turns in recent years, involved in a series of memorable ties and falling at the last hurdle in 2014 and 2016, also reaching two quarter-finals and a semi under Diego Simeone, who has also guided them to a Europa League in his tenure.

Yet in global terms they are the pool's poor relations, alongside multiple former winners in Liverpool, Porto and AC Milan. This is the good stuff.

Atléti, Liverpool and Porto would have every reason to have cursed under their breath when Milan's ball left the plastic bowl at the end of last month because, without a shadow of a doubt, they were the toughest pot 4 opponent that they others could have imagined or dreaded.

Not by way of their illustrious history, which takes in no less than seven European Cup/Champions League titles, but on the back of their promising present.

When Zlatan Ibrahimović gave his very public backing to Stefano Pioli in spring 2020, he did for a reason. It had been assumed that the former Fiorentina boss (and Inter fan) was a stopgap until Ralf Rangnick arrived to spark a revolution. Instead Pioli's underrated work impressed enough - earning his influential Swedish supporter's backing - to lead Milan to stick with him, and it has proved to be a wise choice.

Pioli130921.jpg

The Rossoneri led Serie A for four months last season, sparking hope of an improbable first scudetto since 2011, but what was arguably more impressive than this was their resolve when it started to go wrong. This is a young Milan - with a few experienced totems like Ibrahimović and Simon Kjaer - and for them to keep their nerve and secure a Champions League place against competition from Juventus, Napoli and even Atalanta was laudable. Being here is an achievement.

Liverpool will be a big first test of how far they've come. There is talk of The Reds' quiet transfer window making them slip under the radar, comparatively, in a domestic setting, but in Italy and beyond there is no doubt about what formidable opposition they present. The sense of being clear underdogs and the team's natural sense of daring gives Milan a window that they can work with.

Pioli's side were outstanding in Sunday's 2-0 win over Lazio. One of Serie A's better teams who are going places under Maurizio Sarri, the Romans were swept aside by Milan, with Sandro Tonali and Franck Kessié insatiable in midfield. Rafael Leão has developed very well under the tutelage of Ibrahimović, who made his own return from injury, scoring after coming on as substitute.

This night back in the big time will mean a lot to a player who turns 40 next month, but the current Milan are so much more than a vehicle for him, as Ibrahimović well knows. This has all the elements of a special Anfield night but I can see Milan emerging with a point.

Madrid a big test for the new Inter

Inter v Real Madrid
Wednesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

Inter's disappointment at dropping their first points of the season in the weekend's 2-2 draw at Sampdoria was really an endorsement of how well the season has gone so far, with the sales of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi making one fear the worst - yet they are already six points ahead of Juventus.

The visit of Real Madrid will offer a different test for Simone Inzaghi and company, with Karim Benzema hitting a hat-trick in Sunday's win over Celta Vigo and Vinicius Junior ready to give Matteo Darmian a hard time on the left of attack.

The Spaniards look a nice price at 3.02/1 to emerge from the San Siro with maximum points.

Thrilling start in the Europa for Foxes

Leicester v Napoli
Thursday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

Leicester might have experienced disappointment in failing to make the Champions League at the last for a second successive season, but their Europa League draw is a good way to get over it.

Brendan Rodgers' team are faced with what is almost a Champions League-standard group, with Napoli (and their 100% Serie A record so far) a potentially thrilling start.

Luciano Spalletti's team were a little fortunate, however, to beat Juventus on Saturday and Leicester have the tools to put their imperfect backline under pressure.

The draw looks the best price in the match odds market at around 3.55/2.

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