As AC Milan will be heading to Tokyo to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup against Boca Juniors and other regional champions, the final group games in Group D have been bumped up to today.
Coming off last week’s results, AC Milan have already qualified for the next round but will want to finish on top of the group. They take on Celtic at home and the Scottish club need a draw to be absolutely certain of qualifying for the next round. Celtic have yet to win in seven visits to Italy and are missing a couple of key personnel in Lee Naylor (calf) and Shunsuke Nakamura (knee). Goalkeeper Artur Boruc may be lost after this match for as long as a month as he will have his troublesome knee examined. He may require surgery but the team are hopeful that it is not serious. More worrying for Celtic is that Carlo Ancelotti has said he is going to field the best team available to him though Marek Jankulovski (knee), Ronaldo (calf) and Emerson (fibula) are out through injury.
The key area will be in midfield where AC Milan’s quality far outstrips that of Celtic. AC Milan’s attacking midfielder Kaká has been voted the European Footballer of the Year and is almost certain to win World Footballer of the Year as well. He’s picked up where he left off from last season with two goals and two assists in five Champions League matches. Kaká was the difference when Milan knocked Celtic out in the round of 16 last season. Add to the mix Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo and it’s easy to see that Celtic are going to have their hands full. However, Celtic did manage a 2-1 win back on Matchday 2 which became more famous for the pitch invasion incident involving Milan’s goalkeeper Dida. Celtic are likely to play a packed midfield in hopes of taking away space and time from Kaká.
The other game in the group sees Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Benfica, who have already been eliminated from further Champions League action but could still qualify for the UEFA Cup with a win. A draw would see Shakhtar qualify for UEFA Cup, while a win coupled with a Celtic loss would put them through to the round of 16. Shakhtar had looked likely to qualify after consecutuve wins on the first two Matchdays (a 2-0 win over Celtic and a 1-0 win in Portugal over Benfica) However, they have since lost three straight games, twice to Milan and then last week at Celtic when they were beaten by Massimo Donati’s stoppage-time strike.
For Benfica, midfielders Fábio Coentrão and Cristián Rodríguez are both unavailable with leg injuries while Nélson is struggling to make it back to full fitness with a thigh problem. They were defeated by FC Porto in domestic action this weekend but it was a very tight match and a singular moment of brilliance by Ricardo Quaresma made the difference for Porto. Shakhtar did not play this past weekend as their scheduled domestic match with FC Zorya Luhansk was cancelled in order to boost their preparation for this match. The extra rest allowed players such as Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Zvonimir Vukic and Brandao to recover from niggling injuries and manager Mircea Lucescu will have a full-strength squad to choose from.
I think the extra rest will factor into this match, as will the home advantage and I would not be shocked to see a 2-1 or 2-0 scoreline in Shakhtar’s favour.