James Horncastle preview Wednesday night's Champions League games and sees Messi being too good for Milan and Galatasaray to surprise a few people...
"Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba were bought specifically with a tilt at the Champions League in mind."
It's difficult to recall a time when Milan were so heavily unfancied ahead of a confrontation with Barcelona. There was before the 1994 Champions League final in Athens of course. Everyone expected Johan Cruyff's Dream Team to outplay Fabio Capello's ex-Invincibles. We all know how that ended. It was one-sided, true. But Milan were the ones who won 4-0.
The most surprising thing about that result was that it was a surprise at all. Barcelona were good but Milan weren't bad. Far from it. Even with Franco Baresi and Billy Costacurta suspended, they were still a formidable outfit, able to call upon Mauro Tassotti, Paolo Maldini, Marcel Desailly, Zvoni Boban, Roberto Donadoni and Dejan Savicevic.
It was ludicrous to write them off completely. So in light of that is it just as mad this time around considering that they're trading at 8 to qualify for the quarter-finals? Not according to Rino Gattuso. "In football you never know," he says. "Football is not logical. Football is not on paper but on the pitch."
That's certainly true. And it's why we love the game so much. But, lest we forget, Milan were knocked out of the competition by Barcelona last season and following the sales of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the exits of Alessandro Nesta, Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi and others, it's fair to say they're no longer as competitive as they once were.
Back at the beginning of the campaign, coach Massimiliano Allegri said Milan's objectives should be getting through the group stages and qualifying for the Champions League again. They've accomplished one and are on target to realise the other.
Had the season in Serie A started on October 27, Milan would be top, four points ahead of champions Juventus. Relatively speaking, they've started to get good again. Good enough to realistically overcome Barcelona, the favourites for the competition at 3.052/1? Give it a few years.
Milan are investing and trusting in young players. It's a shame then that Stephan El Shaarawy, their top scorer with 18 goals, is a doubt with tendonitis otherwise he'd be worth backing as first goalscorer. New signing Mario Balotelli, with four goals in his first three games, is also cup-tied unfortunately and although last season's encounters were close, all that's between Lionel Messi and the Milan goal this time is Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata. Back him to score two or more at 2.767/4.
A much more intriguing affair on Wednesday night will perhaps be that between Galatasaray and Schalke at the TT Arena. So much has changed since they were drawn together in December. Schalke had topped their group on the continent, were flying high in Germany and looked upon Galatasaray as a favourable opponent.
However, just two wins in the Bundesliga in the last three months, a change of manager, the sale of Lewis Holtby and the signings of Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba by Galatasaray have seen the tables dramatically turn. Priced at 2.35/4 for a home win in Istanbul, the market also doesn't have the Turkish champions as favourites to qualify. So why not back them to do just that at 2.447/5.
Sneijder and Drogba were bought specifically with a tilt at the Champions League in mind. As coach Fatih Terim recalls, "one of the reasons why Galatasaray was established in 1905" was not just to win in Turkey but in Europe too. "The founder of the club, Ali Sami Yen said: 'We will compete in Europe and we will be successful'."
Terim of course led Galatasaray to the UEFA Cup in 2000. They remain the only Turkish club to win European trophies. Although they are huge priced outsiders for the Champions League, available at 150.0149/1, Galatasaray are once again daring to dream.
Back from the African Cup of Nations, Drogba made his debut for his new club at the weekend. And what a debut it was. Replacing Umut Bulut as a second half substitute, five minutes later the former Chelsea man scored a towering header in a 2-1 win against Akhisar.
Leaping on his back to celebrate was fellow new man, Sneijder. Galatasaray will be hoping for a repeat on Wednesday night. Back Drogba to score at 2.47/5.