While a meeting between two of Europe’s most successful clubs in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals will always be eagerly anticipated, the fact that AC Milan and Barcelona squared off twice in this year's group stage, producing two pulsating games, has only heightened the level of expectation. Though Barça are the reigning champions, spearheaded by a rampant Lionel Messi and buoyed by a 3-2 win at the San Siro in Group H, I Rossoneri are pinning their hopes on a run of recent form that has taken coach Massimiliano Allegri’s charges to the summit of Serie A.
Ahead of tonight's first leg on Italian soil, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Milan centre-back Thiago Silva – out of the tie through injury – who touched on a range of issues including his side’s chances, Messi’s magic, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s point to prove and Seleção colleague Robinho.
FIFA.com: Thiago, this Barcelona-AC Milan tie is a clash between the reigning Champions League holders and the seven-time European champions respectively. Is there a favourite?
Thiago Silva: We have to be optimistic. We’re happy to be in the knockout stages of the Champions League, taking on a team that’s currently considered to be the best in the world. We know how strong they are and we respect them, but we’re also a club with an immense pedigree and a lot of European titles. Almost everybody sees Barcelona as favourites and I think that’s natural. So, it’s down to us to prove over these games that we’ve got what it takes and to show Milan are worthy of winning the European title again.
Pep Guardiola stated that he would have preferred to have drawn a team Barcelona hadn't already played in this season’s competition. Do you think the fact that the sides’ two group games were both hard-fought will give Milan a boost?
Milan’s victorious Champions League pedigree means they always get respect, while the fact we’ve already played them in the group phase is undoubtedly a plus point. I don’t know if Barcelona are wary of us, what matters is that we do our bit and play our football.
Lionel Messi is currently in scintillating form, with Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani stating he is the best player of all time, ahead of even Pele and Diego Maradona. Is there any way to stop him scoring?
Messi is a special player, certainly the best attacker I’ve played against to date, but I think comparing players from different generations is difficult. All I know is that he’s spectacular and already is definitely among the best ever. At the same time, I can’t go talking about our strengths and Milan’s strategy, although, generally speaking, to beat Barcelona you have to close down the spaces and try to make the pitch smaller.
Milan have been in great form in recent weeks. Do you think it’s the club’s best spell of the season so far?
No doubt about it. We were hit by a few injuries early in the season and the team took time to click. At the moment we’re enjoying our best run of form and I’d say it’s come at just the right time. The fact we’re now top of the Italian championship is proof of that. The tie with Barcelona couldn’t have come at a better time.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an integral part of this Milan side, though that wasn’t the case during his short time at Barça. Do you think this will make him doubly motivated ahead of this tie?
Ibrahimovic is a very intelligent player and there are very few strikers like him in world football. Not only does he cause problems for defenders with his impressive physical strength, he’s also excellent in a ‘pivot’ role, giving Milan a reference point up front and bringing people into play. Even for great players, things don't go well at certain clubs and that's normal. He’s now got the opportunity to play well against them in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and of course he’ll be extra motivated.
Ibrahimovic’s fellow attacker Robinho is arguably catching the eye less nowadays as an individual, given he’s been performing in a different role. What’s your verdict on his current form and the fact he’s not been given more chances at national-team level?
Robinho is enjoying the best period of his career in European football. He’s really playing for the team and is now an essential part of Milan’s system. He also loves playing for the Seleção and he’ll do everything he can to get back into the squad. He always looks out for the squad announcements and for news about the national side.
Staying on the subject of A Seleção, Brazil have struggled for consistency in recent months and coach Mano Menezes still appears unsure of his selections in certain areas. What’s the missing ingredient that’ll make the team click?
I’ve seen first-hand the hard work being carried out, though we all know that nothing will be easy. We’re aware that we’ll be under enormous pressure, perhaps greater than any other national team has been under at a World Cup. But the players believe in Mano, who’s an intelligent coach and is capable of guiding Brazil towards this great dream of ours: winning the World Cup at the Maracana.
Over in Brazil, there is always an expectation that the national team must win, while also playing attractive, attacking football. Do you think today’s group of players is capable of winning in style?
What every team is looking for is balance across the areas [of defence, midfield and attack]. Once that happens then good football, futebol bonito, comes naturally. Barcelona, our Champions League opponents, are the best example of how spectacular football and winning can go hand in hand.
Brazil face another tough challenge this year in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament. How do you view this competition and do you think you’ll be one of the three overage players?
Brazil have never won a [football] gold medal at the Olympics and there’s a lot of pressure to do just that. Mano knows how important this competition is and the foundations are being carefully laid. I wouldn’t like to think that this could sway us from our goal of winning the 2014 World Cup. The players in the [Olympic] squad make me optimistic, and if I were to take part it’d be a great honour.