Wednesday's first leg in the Champions League Round of 16 between AC Milan and Barcelona (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET) will see a stark contrast between two of Europe's most decorated and majestic clubs, pitting decay against continued prosperity.
The two clubs, who have combined to win this tournament five times in the last decade and 11 times overall, faced off in four exhilarating games last season alone. Barcelona resoundingly dominated the run of play, commandeering at least 60 per cent of possession in each game and outshooting the Italians 62-19 overall. Yet Milan were well-organized and pragmatic and their veteran core so experienced and knowledgeable about winning at this level that they grabbed against-the-flow equalizers at opportune times and dragged out results. During the group stage, Barca tied Milan 2-2 at home and won 2-3 away. When they met again in the quarterfinals, Milan held Barca to 0-0 at home before falling 3-1 at the Camp Nou.
A very different scenario is likely to emerge this year. All those that have observed the club over the last few years will surely concede that Milan is somewhat adrift. The time that the Italian giants - or indeed the entire Italian league - could dominate Europe on the strength of their superior purchasing power is long gone. Milan is, for the first time since media mogul Silvio Berlusconi took over in 1986, a net seller of its playing assets. Just this summer the Rossoneri sold their two best players, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and central defender Thiago Silva, to the nouveaux riches of Paris Saint-Germain for a combined $90 million. Then they sent forward Alexandre Pato to Corinthians for $20 million.
A few years ago, such an outflow would have been unimaginable. Milan sold leading players every now and again, when it couldn't be avoided, but never did those departing go unreplaced, like they did this year. What's more, Milan bid adieu to a foursome of club stalwarts in defender Alessandro Nesta, midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf and forward Filippo Inzaghi. Granted, they were all 34 or older. But they had combined to serve the club for a total of 44 years between them and formed a touchstone for its rich and elegant identity. They represented a direct line of succession to Milan icons like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, who were bedrocks to the 1987-1996 dynasty, when the club won the Serie A five times and reached the Champions League final just as often.
Measured by Milan's regal standards, this is a shabby team assembled on a shoestring, even if they did buy Mario Balotelli for about $26 million in January to form a young new attacking nucleus with Stephan El Shaarawy. But without these steady old hands, Milan has been unrecognizably short on experience and savoir-faire this year. The results have corresponded to those shortcomings. In the middle of October Milan sat in 15th place in the league after losing five of their first eight games. They've since clawed up to third place, going 9-1-2 of late. But they haven't convinced anybody that they are a contender in Europe; especially not after winning just two of their six group stage games.
Barcelona, on the other hand, remains the paradigm of dominance, stability and cultural continuity Milan once was. Archrivals and defending champions Real Madrid have long since bickered, dickered and frittered away their chances of repeating, allowing dazzling Barca to open up an insurmountable 16-point chasm in the league. They fairly sailed through the group stage in Europe - struggling only against Celtic, curiously - and are favorites to lift their third continental crown in five years. Their band of world-beaters is showing no signs at all of slowing up and the club's famed academy pipeline is just about bursting with talent - midfielders Thiago, Jonathan Dos Santos and Rafinha and forwards Cristian Tello, Gerard Deulofeu and Jean Marie Dongou impatiently wait in the wings.
This growing discrepancy between the clubs' fortunes is odd. They're both well-supported global brands with cavernous and well-filled stadiums and healthily-diversified income streams. The economies of their respective countries have both been equally hard-hit. Barca has the richer television contract, since it doesn't have to share that revenue with other clubs in the league the way Milan does. But then the fan-owned Barca doesn't have a club president to inject cash, like Milan.
The only demonstrable difference, then, is in the battle of ideologies. The outlines of Milan's have blurred at a time of high player turnover while Barca's only ever seem to sharpen.
On Wednesday, Milan will get a chance to re-establish its reputation while dimming the luster of Barcelona's in an attempt to reclaim the equilibrium.