Form is no ally to the Italian clubs returning to the Champions League. David Beckham, who knows more than most about the value of momentum at Manchester United, has warned his AC Milan colleagues that their opponents at San Siro tonight are "on fire". His own team, he admits, have "needed to get players back to fitness".
Milan's first win in three Serie A matches at the weekend was, says Beckham, "something we really needed". But the 3-2 victory over Udinese, with frequent defensive lapses on the part of the home side, was not entirely convincing. Cesare Prandelli's Fiorentina, meanwhile, will face Bayern Munich in Bavaria tomorrow looking like a side in free fall. Defeat at Sampdoria on Sunday means they have gathered just one point from their last five Serie A matches. Bayern at the same time have been on a winning streak since defeating Juventus in December to clinch their place in the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition. The Germans scored four goals in Turin that night and have hardly let up in their appetite since. In nine games in all competitions since the beginning of December, Bayern have scored 34 times.
Even Inter Milan, whose lead at the top of Serie A has been trimmed by four points over the last nine days, are on a relatively winless run ahead of their encounter with Chelsea seven days from now. Inter's goalless draw at Napoli on Sunday followed their 1-1 stalemate at Parma in midweek. Inter, Fiorentina and Milan know that the health of Italian football in general will be judged over the next 10 days. That is how the Champions League works. We look at it as a way of calibrating the hierarchy of European football, and do so impatiently at this stage of each February, as it returns to dominate the club football agenda after its winter hibernation.
Anticipating all that, Inter's head coach Jose Mourinho took the early precaution of saying that whatever Milan and Fiorentina do this week should have no bearing on what we expect from his Italian champions. "Chelsea are a better team at the moment than Manchester United," said the former Chelsea manager, "but then Inter are a superior team to Milan." Mourinho knows only too well that the Champions League has got into a habit of reminding Italians of the might of English football, repeatedly and relentlessly. Two years ago, Liverpool eliminated Inter at the same time as Arsenal, winning away at San Siro, knocked out Milan. Twelve months ago, Uefa's arbitrary draw conspired to create a sort of Anglo-Italian Cup by pitting Inter, the scudetto holders, against United, the Premier League champions, at the same stage as Roma met Arsenal and Chelsea took on Juventus. The three ties produced an English grand slam, wins over two legs for Chelsea and United, and over 180 minutes plus penalties for Arsenal.
The pre-match sparring takes on a collective quality: Italy v England. Commentators have been recalling how Fiorentina have already given Serie A a fillip this season, by effectively eliminating Liverpool at the group stage of the Champions League. And as Mourinho shared his thoughts not only on Inter's readiness for English opposition, he also gave Milan some encouragement: "United don't look the same team as they were last year," said Mourinho, slyly suggesting that his team faced a more thoroughbred United last year. "I'd say Milan have a 50-50 chance. United miss Cristiano Ronaldo."
As if in earshot, Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out that Milan, too, have had to adjust to a significant departure and still felt it strongly. "Milan really miss Kaka," said the Scot. His prevailing impression from bearing the bitter cold to watch Milan defeat Udinese was that Alexandre Pato's fitness would be key. Pato is back, and scored a goal after coming on as a very early substitute on Friday night. It was his first action since late 2009.
Leonardo, the Milan head coach, now has some options as he seeks to recover the panache of Milan's football of early January. Ronaldinho helped set up all three goals against Udinese, which was encouraging, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored twice, which was surprising, given that the Dutchman has been such a fringe player. Leonardo has a genuine dilemma up front now. Marco Boriello is doubtful through injury, so Pato could splay in the middle of the front three, with Beckham serving him from the right and Ronaldinho from the left; or Huntelaar could play the target man with Pato and Ronaldinho on either side. There are also fitness issues over Thiago Silva, the defender who withdrew in the first-half against Udinese, and Clarence Seedorf. Three years ago, United and Milan met in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and after a close first leg at Old Trafford, Milan overwhelmed the English team.
Men Against Boys, the English called it, with Milan's masters dominating United's apprentices. The caricatures are less easy now. Milan still have veterans, like Alessandro Nesta, Beckham, Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso, but United's naifs of 2007 have been in two Champions League finals since. And with 16 goals in their last five games, they are, like Beckham said, "on fire". Just like Bayern. The Italian clubs' first task this week is to douse all that ardour. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org