Crisis-hit Milan ripe for Celtic picking
If Scottish champions Celtic are to ever cause an upset away to seven-time European champions AC Milan, Wednesday's Champions League Group A opener could be their best opportunity.
Two weeks ago fans of the Rossoneri were in jubilant mood as former star Kaka returned to the San Siro amid huge festivities following a mitigated three-season spell at Real Madrid.
But since then, things have gone distinctly downhill for Massimiliano Allegri's side, who have shown mediocre form in Serie A and have an injury list that seems to be growing daily.
Milan started the league campaign with a 2-0 reverse away to league new boys Verona and although the Rossoneri bounced back to beat Cagliari 3-1 at home with a far-improved display, a short trip to Torino on Sunday almost ended in disaster.
Torino, exploiting Milan's defensive lapses and making the visitors pay with explosive counter-attacks, were leading 2-0 until midfielder Sulley Muntari reduced arrears in the 87th minute.
Only a late penalty, converted by striker Mario Balotelli in the seventh minute of injury time, secured a rather lucky share of the points.
"We didn't play well. Torino were strong, especially on the counter-attack, and showed their speed and technical ability when going forward," lamented Allegri.
It was a ragged performance all-round, and one Allegri says cannot be repeated Wednesday when the Rossoneri will be missing midfielder Riccardo Montolivo, Brazilian playmaker Kaka, striker Stephan El-Shaarawy and defenders Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio.
"At the moment, our defensive play is just not where it should be -- and I'm talking about as a team," added Allegri.
"We need to work harder. (Conceding) five goals in three games is just not good enough. We can't afford to slip up against Celtic on Wednesday."
On paper, Milan will be fancied to grind out a win against the Scots, a side whose aim in every Champions League campaign, at least in the short-term, is to make it to the knockout phase.
But despite a comparatively lower pedigree -- Celtic have won one European Cup, in 1967, to Milan's seven -- Neil Lennon's men are known for digging deep and causing upsets against teams that seem better equipped -- although almost never away from home.
And, Lennon expects to see some better football from his troops this season.
Celtic beat a strong Spartak Moscow side 2-1 home and away last season before humbling Barcelona by the same scoreline in Glasgow, having lost 2-1 in Catalonia.
Those results helped Celtic qualify for the knockout phase for the first time since 2008, when Barcelona ended the Hoops' dream of a quarter-final place.
Last season Juventus dominated Lennon's men 5-0 on aggregate, but after a 3-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle at the weekend, Northern Irishman Lennon was bullish when asked how far he hoped to lead his side this season.
"My target is to qualify, basically. I don't care how many points we get. If we could finish second -- or first -- that would be amazing," said Lennon.
"But I want us to play well and compete. It's a different style and level of football with a different intensity to the game, so it is a step up but the players have got the experience of last year."
After confirming his five absences, Allegri is now hoping their replacements step up to the plate: "We'll make do with who we have and we'll have fresh players ready to play what is a delicate and important game."