With Milan nine points off fourth place in Serie A, the best hope of qualifying for the Champions League next season is winning the Europa League.
This is a daunting task, with the likes of Napoli, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid in the field, but before Milan can even think about those giants, they must get past Ludogorets in the round of 32.
The Razgrad-based club have asserted their dominance over Bulgarian football – they are in pole position to win their seventh-straight league title – but they have yet to break through on the European stage. They have become a semi-regular participant in the Champions League group stage, but Ludogorets have found continental success to be a bridge too far. A two-legged victory over Milan would put them into the last 16 of a European competition for the first time since the 2013-14 Europa League.
But as Gennaro Gattuso pointed out in the buildup to the first leg, Ludogorets are a more regular European participant these days than Milan, an odd thing to say about the seven-time European champions. This is Milan’s first season in European competition since the 2013-14 Champions League.
The last time Milan played in Europe’s secondary championship, it was the final year of the UEFA Cup in 2008-09, when they were knocked out on away goals by eventual runners-up Werder Bremen.
AC Milan: W/W/D/D/W
Milan are eight matches unbeaten in all competitions since embarrassing losses to Verona and Atalanta in Serie A, and they are starting to find themselves under the Gennaro Gattuso’s guidance. The Rossoneri head to Bulgaria on the back of a 4-0 win at SPAL, in which Milan always had complete control. That result certainly seemed to cast aside any issues prevalent in Milan’s 1-1 draw at Udinese, but that match turned on its head after Davide Calabria’s red card.
This will be Ludogorets’ first match since December, as the Bulgarian first division has been on break. The Eagles’ last action was against CSKA Sofia in the Bulgarian Cup, in which they were eliminated on penalties. They remain in first place in Bulgaria, and they finished second in their Europa League group behind Braga, missing the top spot after a draw with Hoffenheim on the final match day.
Injuries and Suspensions
Milan: Marco Storari, Andrea Conti, Matteo Gabbia, Gustavo Gomez and Nikola Kalinic are out of the squad through injury. Manuel Locatelli is suspended.
Ludogorets: Goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov has been out of the squad since March 2017 due to a patella rupture. Claudiu Keseru and Natanael are suspended.
Gattuso has named a 20-man squad for the match in Bulgaria.
GOALKEEPERS: Antonio Donnarumma, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessandro Guarnone
DEFENDERS: Ignazio Abate, Leonardo Bonucci, Davide Calabria, Mateo Musacchio, Riccardo Rodriguez, Alessio Romagnoli, Cristian Zapata
MIDFIELDERS: Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura, Hakan Calhanoglu, Franck Kessie, Jose Mauri, Riccardo Montolivo
FORWARDS: Fabio Borini, Patrick Cutrone, André Silva, Suso
In his pre-match press conference, Gattuso suggested he will field a similar squad to the one he has been deploying in Serie A.
“Now we are in a good moment and I want to give continuity to those who are doing better,” Gattuso said. “The time will come for others too. I honestly believe so. The fact that I’m rotating little is because I see fast recoveries during the week and I don’t see tiredness.”
Expect hardly any change to the lineup from the SPAL domination. The only change could be at left back. Calabria was suspended against SPAL after his red card at Udinese, but he has been one of Milan’s top performers recently and should slot in for Rodriguez on the left.
This lineup does not feature Andre Silva, who scored six times in the Europa League group stage. The Portuguese No. 9 had an opportunity to get into Gattuso’s good graces, and he failed with a miserable performance at Udinese. Cutrone came in against SPAL and scored twice in a brilliant display. It doesn’t matter that the Europa League has been Silva’s competition of choice for goals this season. Gattuso is unlikely to trust him from the start in such an important match.
Milan will be looking to take control ahead of the second leg next week at the San Siro. The Rossoneri can put the hosts under extreme pressure if they bag a couple away goals.
Expect them to do just that. Ludogorets may get one at home, but look for Milan to leave Bulgaria with a 3-1 advantage after two goals from Cutrone and another from Suso.
How to Watch
Date/time: Thursday, February 14, 2018, 6 p.m. (IT), 1 p.m. ET (USA)
Venue: Ludogorets Arena, Razgrad, Bulgaria
Officials: Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB), Assistant Referee 1: Milovan Ristić (SRB), Assistant Referee 2: Dalibor Đurđević (SRB), Additional Assistant Referee 1: Nenad Đokić (SRB), Additional Assistant Referee 2: Danilo Grujić (SRB), Fourth Official: Nemanja Petrović (SRB)
TV: Listings at livesoccertv.com