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AC Milan face huge hurdle against bright young things of PSV

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James Horncastle fears for AC Milan's hopes of getting past PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League group stage play-offs. You can follow full live text commentary of the match from 7:45 here at Eurosport-Yahoo!

As a final hurdle to Champions League group stage qualification, the play-off has represented quite the stumbling block for Serie A sides in recent years. Sampdoria fell at it in 2010, then Udinese in 2011 and 2012.

AC Milan are now looking to clear it. They have done so before and not too long ago either. Red Star Belgrade were the hurdle. The year 2006. Milan won at San Siro. They won at the Marakana. Goals from Pippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf were enough to secure safe passage.

In hindsight that play-off assumed an auspicious quality as Milan went on to reach the final in Athens, the location of their Champions League triumph in 1994. And it was there that they got their revenge on Liverpool for the “blackout” they suffered at the same stage in Istanbul two years earlier.

It wasn’t the only time a play-off foreshadowed glory either. Milan had to overcome Slovan Liberec in 2002 to get into the group stages, and that too would prove to be the first step in a long march to a glorious final, that time at Old Trafford where Milan got the better of Juventus in a penalty shoot-out.

Even with all that in mind, there is trepidation ahead of tonight’s visit to Eindhoven, where Milan play PSV. Qualifying for a competition that the seven-time winners consider to be their “natural habitat” has become an imperative.

Gone are the days when owner Silvio Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest used to lavish millions on Milan. The state of the economy in Italy, the structure of football in the country and UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules have led to a drive towards self-sustainability.

So after Fininvest injected €87m into the club two years ago, then a further €29m the following year, Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani has been charged with weaning the club off its benefactor. It’s within this context that the sales of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer must be seen, and with them the slashing of the payroll.

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As a result, Milan’s most recent set of accounts show that they very nearly broke even. Making the Champions League group stages would be worth an estimated €30m to them in prize money and TV rights. It would push the Rossoneri from the red and into the black and bring in revenue, which, Galliani has intimated, would be partly reinvested in the transfer market either on CSKA Moscow playmaker Keisuke Honda or Fiorentina’s Adem Ljajic. Also talked about is the prospective loan of Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Mamadou Sakho.

Missing out doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because it might already reopen the cracks that appeared between coach Max Allegri and Berlusconi, which were papered over at the end of last season in a summit at the owner’s estate in Arcore.

Apparently unappreciative of the remarkable job Allegri had done in getting Milan on the podium after all those “painful but necessary cuts” he imposed, Berlusconi had sensationally tried to appoint Seedorf. Il Corriere della Sera even claimed that a provisional contract had been signed in the winter, prompting Allegri to look elsewhere, only for it to be ripped up when it materialised that the staff Seedorf had requested might cost the club up to €15m before tax. Galliani eventually managed to make Berlusconi see sense and Allegri stayed.

Tonight’s game, then, is a delicate one. Not that you’d get that impression from Allegri’s demeanour at Monday’s press conference. “I’m serene,” he said. “The lads will play a good game.”

Others, however, are not so sure.

Eindhoven is a place that evokes mixed emotions among Milan supporters. On the one hand, it’s the club from whom they signed Ruud Gullit in 1987. On the other, it was also the scene of their qualification for the ill-fated 2005 Champions League final. Milan lost 3-2 at the Philips Stadion on that occasion. An 89th minute goal scored by Massimo Ambrosini was enough for them to go through on aggregate after winning the first leg at San Siro 2-0.

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PSV’s current manager Philip Cocu scored twice that night in Eindhoven. He was also a member of the team that beat Milan 1-0 at the Philips Stadion in the group stages of the Champions League the following season.

Reflecting on that semi-final, Cocu said: “We were the best team in both games. We suffered a couple of lapses in concentration and paid dearly for it. I needed the lesson of 2005 and my players need it too.”

Indeed, they’re an exuberant bunch. The average age of this PSV team is 22.5. They are the youngest side in the Champions League play-offs. Like Milan a year ago, you might have expected them to suffer after selling a number of big names over the summer. Kevin Strootman went to Roma, Dries Mertens left for Napoli, Jeremain Lens joined Dynamo Kyiv and Erik Pieters moved to Stoke. Mark van Bommel, a member of Milan’s last Scudetto winning team two years ago, also retired. And yet PSV’s fledglings are flying.

Back in competitive action since August 3, they have won each of their opening three league fixtures in the Eredivisie, scoring lots of goals and conceding few. ADO Den Haag were turned over 3-2, NEC Nijmegen were thrashed 5-0 [by a starting XI boasting an average age of 19.5] and Go Ahead Eagles got burned 3-0 too.

So forgive Milan supporters if they’re a little concerned. “We’re still not at 100 per cent,” Allegri revealed. Serie A doesn’t start until the weekend and, unlike their opponents, Milan are yet to play a competitive match. Key players are walking wounded.

Due to make his Champions League debut for Milan, Mario Balotelli has missed a lot of pre-season. Sent home from the Confederations Cup with a thigh injury, he then developed a fever and picked up another knock while training with Italy before last week’s friendly against Argentina.

That gave Milan a real scare, but Balotelli will play, not least because Allegri’s options are limited. Giampaolo Pazzini is still recovering from knee surgery and so, should the going get tough against PSV, they won’t be able throw him into the mix.

In defence, Philippe Mexes is only just coming back from a niggling muscle injury, but he will reprise the partnership he formed at centre-back with Cristian Zapata, which yielded seven clean sheets in Milan’s final 12 league games. Full-back Mattia de Sciglio is out. His place in the side will be taken by former Ajax player Urby Emanuelson rather than Kevin Constant, who was disastrous there against Barcelona.

Supporters’ anxiety is compounded by the reputation of Allegri’s Milan as slow starters. They have been so for the last three seasons. The question is: how will they get out the blocks in Eindhoven tonight? Avoiding a false start is vital.

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