History lesson offers Milan hope

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The Independent Online

It's Groundhog Day in Milan. Last season, Roberto Mancini's Internazionale took an early grip on Serie A and never looked like relinquishing it, going on to win the Scudetto by a record 22-point margin over second-placed Roma. Across town, Carlo Ancelotti's Milan started poorly and were floundering in mid-table in the autumn, before staging a late charge to claim fourth place. This season, Inter took an early grip on Serie A and still have a handsome lead while Milan started awfully, dropping 24 out of a possible 48 points before Christmas, but are now lurking around fourth place.

Of the two, it will be Milan praying that the rest of the season pans out exactly the way it did last year. Inter, cantering to the title in a league weakened by penalties inflicted on rivals in the wake of the match-fixing scandal, won fewer plaudits than their dominance deserved. The true test of Mancini's team, it was widely agreed, would come in the Champions' League. Here, Inter were unable to impose themselves on a good, but not invincible, Valencia in the last 16 and went out in ignominy, amid one of the nastiest punch-ups that the competition has ever seen.

Milan, of course, went on to win the competition, knocking out Manchester United in the semi-final before beating Liverpool in the final. Everything clicked into place after Christmas, with the players hitting peak form and fitness when it mattered most. Ancelotti described the 3-0 second-leg victory over United at the San Siro as "a perfect performance".

All of which would seem to suggest that Liverpool, who face Inter at Anfield on Tuesday, should feel slightly more confident than Arsenal, who host Milan at the Emirates the following day. But there have been a couple of changes to the script which throw up the possibility of a different outcome. First, Inter are an even stronger outfit than they were last year and meet a Liverpool side experiencing an identity crisis on and off the pitch. Second, Milan are facing a wave of injuries which will test the resources of a limited squad.

The career-threatening knee injury sustained by Milan's Brazilian striker Ronaldo on Wednesday was the latest in a blighted season. Ten days earlier, the club's 18-year-old Brazilian prodigy, Alexandre Pato, came off the bench to settle a tight league game against Fiorentina with a cool finish, his fourth goal in six appearances. The backslapping on the Milan bench had hardly finished when the player sprained an ankle chasing down a loose ball. He is a doubt against Arsenal, at least for the first leg.

Milan are likely to start with Alberto Gilardino as a lone striker in a 4-3-2-1 formation, with the 34-year-old Pippo Inzaghi, just returning to the squad after a month out with injury, on the bench.

The biggest worry for Milan, however, remains World Player of the Year, Kaka, who has been resting a sore knee. Arsenal's coach, Arsène Wenger, will breathe a huge sigh of relief if the Brazilian's name does not appear on the teamsheet. The player's personal press officer said last week that Kaka would have to "stay still for a while and do some physio," adding "there is no need for an operation but he will probably miss the Arsenal match". However, it is unlikely that Ancelotti will risk leaving his star player out for such a season-defining game.

By contrast, Mancini has such an embarrassment of attacking riches that he can afford to pack the Brazilian striker Adriano off on loan to Sao Paulo in Brazil. The Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahim-ovich will be looking to add to the five goals he has scored in this season's Champions' League, probably alongside the Argentinian Julio Ricardo Cruz, who is a perfect foil for the Swede. Fellow Argentinian Hernan Crespo – and the Honduran David Suazo – are other alternatives.

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