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AC Milan vs Lazio
Match Date: 31-08-2014
Location: Milan
Stadium Giuseppe Meazza
Referee Tagliavento
Time 18:00 CET
Lazio travel to the San Siro on week one of the 2014-15 season in search of their first league victory against AC Milan since 3 September 1989, when a 21 year-old centre-back by the name of Paolo Maldini inexplicably lobbed his own goalkeeper to gift Lazio a 1-0 victory. To say the Biancocelesti are due a win against AC Milan is an understatement, but to say it would be easy would surely be an underestimation and yet there appears to be genuine enthusiasm for - and belief in - a Lazio win.

The source of the optimism is obvious. Lazio have had a solid mercato and the team is most definitely stronger on paper. This notion, combined with our form under Edy Reja last season and the absence of European competition this term, has led many to believe that Lazio are Europa League contenders if not dark horses for a Champions League spot. And if you want to qualify for European competition, then surely you must go to the home of 2013-14's 8th placed team and aim to come away with three points. That I can understand.

What I cannot understand is all the negativity that currently surrounds AC Milan. Under Clarence Seedorf, their points-per-game average was good enough to qualify for the Europa League and they now have an ever-so-slightly more experienced coach in Pippo Inzaghi and a marginally improved roster.

Yes, they have lost Mario Balotelli, but he was not much more than a glorified penalty-taker last season. Instead of pinning all their hopes on someone who has never been able to carry expectations, Milan can now rely on one of the world's best goalkeepers in Diego Lopez, an experienced and able centre-back in Alex and players with a nice blend of ability and Serie A experience in Pablo Armero and Jeremy Menez. Much will of course depend on Pippo Inzaghi's leadership qualities, but he talks a good talk and if he walks the walk, I think Milan will be back in Europe at the end of this season at the very least. A difficult opener, then.

Since there is not much to choose between the two sides on paper, and as both sides are under immense pressure from the off, this game could end up being a battle of wits between two managers who will almost certainly go about their business in the same way. I expect both Inzaghi and Pioli to utilise a 4-3-3, look to control the game in midfield and create opportunities on the counter.

Lazio are more than capable of making the system work and coming back to Rome with the win, but there was much to be concerned about in the 7-0 win over Bassano Virtus. The attack came good in the end, but they came good following Candreva's introduction into the game. Felipe Anderson was ineffective, Filip Djordjevic was invisible and Keita Balde Diao played as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders in the first half. Keita's second half performance, however, was a different story. He should retain his spot in the team, Candreva will surely join him and Pioli will have a difficult choice between Djordjevic and a less than 100% Klose.

The midfield that featured against Bassano was also of concern. Not so much the personnel, but the constant positional swaps between Senad Lulic and Marco Parolo that occurred in the first half. In the second half, Parolo began to bomb forward more and actually played a part in all seven goals, either by making runs which created space or by initiating and completing attacks. The ex-Parma midfielder is one of those players who is competent in all areas without excelling in any area in particular and this gives us some tactical flexibility within the game. The key against Milan will be to utilise Parolo and Lulic correctly.

The final spot in midfield is a toss-up between Ledesma and Biglia. I predicted in last weekend's preview that Biglia would start and Ledesma would get 25 minutes, but it was Ledesma who found himself in the starting eleven and Biglia who was handed 25 minutes. That suggests to me that Biglia was not ready, but that Pioli wanted him to be for Milan. If he is ready, I think he will get the nod over Ledesma.

The defence will not get an easier game this season than they did last weekend but having said that, they made Bassano look very good with the few opportunities the Venetian side carved out. Lorik Cana was his overzealous self, but Stefan De Vrij was hesitant. Hesitant in passing, hesitant in dealing with simple balls but what worried me most was his willingness to stand off his opponents. Inviting Simone Iocolano to pressure you is one thing, but inviting Keisuke Honda or Jeremy Menez or Stephen El Shaarawy is a different matter altogether. We need to bear in mind that Stefan De Vrij joins us from a top side in an inferior league. Although I believe this need to adapt to the tactical demands of Serie A is a little exaggerated in this day and age, De Vrij wll have to adapt his defensive game to stronger opposition and that will take some time. There is no doubt in my mind that he will start, but Pioli has to ask himself whether Cana's enthusiasm or Gentiletti's inexperience is the better compliment for De Vrij right now. Stefan Radu, Dusan Basta and Etrit Berisha will surround them.

Pippo Inzaghi has his own headaches. He desperately wanted a new striker [Fernando Torres], a high calibre winger [Alessio Cerci or Club Brugge's Maxime Lestienne] and a midfielder [Marco van Ginkel], but it is almost certain that he will not have the reinforcements he wants for Sunday. Inzaghi is therefore contemplating fielding one of his wing players - likely Jeremy Menez - in a false nine role instead of M'baye Niang or Giampaolo Pazzini. The latter has actually scored more goals against Lazio than any other current Serie A team, having put nine past Lazio goalkeepers over the years. Lazio fans might be relieved to see his name missing from the teamsheet, but that is not certain, and Honda, El Shaarawy and Menez are all more than capable of doing damage as the lead man in attack.

I actually think Milan need to be more worried about their defence than their attack. Alex and Rami should be robust and formidable, but they could struggle to deal with the pace Lazio possess in Keita and Candreva if our boys can get them. In addition, I am not entirely convinced Nigel De Jong and Andrea Poli are going to come out on top in the inevitable midfield battle. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, but we must address the issues that were evident last week.

In Stefano Pioli, we have a man who knows what it takes to beat AC Milan. Pioli played nine games against the Italian giants as a player and never lost. Leading Lazio to victory at the San Siro will be anything but easy, particularly if Football italia are right in saying Milan will field 12 players in a 4-3-4 formation, but Lazio have a real chance if Pioli gets his tactics right.

Predicted line-up:
(4-3-3): Berisha; Basta, De Vrij, Cana, Radu; Parolo, Biglia, Lulic; Candreva, Klose, Keita.

Writer: C
Team Name Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
10AC Milan381313125650652
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  Players To Watch
AC Milan / Nigel De Jong
Whatever trio Inzaghi goes with in attack will be worth keeping an eye on, but AC Milan lack defensive-midfielders and that makes Nigel De Jong the one to watch. If Milan come out of this with a win, he will have had a good game.
Lazio / Marco Parolo
Likewise, Marco Parolo will need to have a good game for Lazio to emerge victorius. The Roman media sold him short for his performance against Bassano Virtus. He looks in good form and it would not surprise me if he takes all the plaudits on Sunday.
  Referee Statistics
AC Milan vs Lazio
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