Ronaldinho Gaucho

Monday, April 17, 2006

AC MILAN-BARCELONA: Rested Ronaldinho Ready For Milan

"There's nothing like the Champions League," has become AC Milan's motto as Carlo Ancelotti's side gear up for a Champions League semi-final first leg clash against Barcelona Tuesday in Milan.

Even though Milan already have six European titles under their belt, the Devils feel only a seventh crown will help ease the pain of losing last year's final to Liverpool despite leading 3-0 at one stage. Barca, meanwhile, have only won the tournament once, back in 1992, but coach Frank Rijkaard is determined to convert the Catalan giants into European heavyweights.

"At the moment, Milan have more experience than us," said Rijkaard. "But maybe now is the time to change things, so that in a few years people will say that Barcelona is the team with most experience."

On Sunday Rijkaard flew out to Milan with his squad in good heart, after Friday's 1-0 win over Villarreal had practically ensured another Spanish "Liga" title. The only bad news from the Villarreal match was the calf strain suffered by veteran striker Henrik Larsson, who will be out for at least a week.

Rijkaard's other injury absentees are midfield general Xavi Hernandez and teenage sensation Lionel Messi. Portugal midfielder Deco will miss Tuesday's first leg after being handed a one-match suspension by UEFA.

The good news for Rijkaard is the return to fitness of midfielder Thiago Motta and of reserve striker Santi Ezquerro. FIFA World Player Ronaldinho has been rested for Barca's last two matches, against Racing Santander and Villareal. Understandably, the Brazilian is really fired up now for Tuesday's clash.

"I feel wonderfully physically," said Ronaldinho before boarding the plane. "This rest has done me a lot of good, and I can hardly wait for the ball to start rolling on Tuesday night."

Milan still have an outside chance of taking the Italian title after last Friday's defeat of city rivals Inter Milan means they are now just five points adrift of Serie A leaders Juventus, who could only draw at the weekend.

But the 46-year-old Ancelotti, who led Milan to the Champions League in 2003, is concentrating at the moment on Barcelona. "I don't make plans, not on paper nor in my mind. And the players are thinking about the semi-final with Barcelona, which, by itself, is quite a big thought," he said.

Milan are almost certain to be without striker Filippo Inzaghi as the in-form veteran has been plagued by tonsillitis and fever. Ukraine star Andriy Shevchenko and the young Alberto Gilardino are likely to start up front while veteran captain Paolo Maldini should start in defence.

Not surprisingly, the Giuseppe Meazza is a sell-out with Milan set to cash in an unofficial record sum of 3.3 million euros (3.9 million dollars). Between 4,000 and 5,000 Spanish fans are expected in Milan, a lower number than those who followed Bayern Munich and Olympic Lyon in the two preceding rounds.

The second semi-final between Arsenal and Villarreal takes place Wednesday
By Alberto Cagliano, dpa


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