5 things to know about Group H of Champions League
MADRID (AP) — Here are 5 things to know ahead of Wednesday’s Group H matches in the Champions League:
Lionel Messi hasn’t completely recovered from a hamstring injury, and it has shown with the Barcelona forward going four straight league games without a goal for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
Messi, whose nickname is “the Flea,” has scored 12 goals in 14 games overall, with his only goal since September coming in the draw at the San Siro.
Concern over the Argentina international has been running so high that his father Jorge went on Spanish radio to provide assurances amid speculation that Messi’s mind is on the World Cup rather than Barcelona’s season.
“Nothing’s wrong with Leo, he’s well, training very hard with a lot of ambition,” Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez said. “The problem is that his production over the last few seasons has been so spectacular that if he goes a couple of games without scoring it looks like something’s wrong.”
Alexis Sanchez has helped fill the void with the Chile striker scoring seven goals this season, while Pedro has five.
While Barcelona is going through a mini-Messi crisis, it is full-blown at Milan.
Milan has only one win in five league matches and is in 11th place in the Serie A. It is 16 points off the Champions League spots and only three above the relegation zone.
“We will get out of this dark time,” said Kaka, who has been one of the few to impress since returning from injury. “If we believe, then it can happen. I don’t want any more promises.
“Goals and assists will be factors, but the will of the group is even more important. It starts against Barcelona this week. We showed in the first match against them that we can compete and do well.”
Milan is still without the injured Matias Silvestre, Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Bonera, Stephan El Shaarawy and Giampaolo Pazzini. Barcelona defenders Gerard Pique and Adriano are questionable to play.
It’s hard to imagine, but it seems Mario Balotelli may have hit his low point since his arrival at Milan.
The Italy striker had a fantastic second half last season after his arrival in January when he helped propel Milan into the top three and a Champions League spot. But his form this season is mirroring Milan’s.
Balotelli had a penalty saved for the first time in his career and was then banned for three matches for insulting the referee. The Italy striker also picked up a thigh injury.
Balotelli hasn’t scored in more than a month — when he converted a penalty against Ajax — and was substituted for the first time by Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri during a 3-2 loss at Parma.
MAKING HIS MARK
While Balotelli’s struggles are mostly self-inflicted, Pedro’s fleeting playing time at Barcelona is not.
The Spain forward has found minutes harder to come by with Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas in good form, and the Barcelona winger is worried it could affect his World Cup prospects.
“It’s logical that I want to play more, I’m not getting steady playing time,” Pedro said. “But I’m fine with that. I feel like I’m important inside the dressing room and that opportunities will come.”
Pedro has also demanded more respect for Barcelona’s play with the Catalans having won 34 of 36 points in the league.
“Results are what matter,” Pedro said. “And it’s not like we’re playing as badly as everyone says. The team is winning, we’ve stayed top and that’s all that matters. Obviously we’re lacking in some facets but it’s normal to improve as the season progresses.”
STILL IN IT
Four-time European champion Ajax is off to its worst start to a Champions League campaign, but Milan’s struggles and Celtic’s proximity in the standings mean it’s not out of it yet.
A victory over Celtic, which beat Ajax 2-1 at Celtic Park, would see it pass its Scottish opponent and move one point behind of Milan, if it loses at Barcelona. Celtic, meanwhile, can move clear into second with an away win coupled with a Milan loss before it hosts the Italians in the next round.
The problem for Celtic is it has won only once in its last 25 away matches, losing 23 of those.
Meanwhile, Ajax has won only three of its last 10 matches on home soil, losing five of those.
Associated Press writer Daniella Matar in Milan contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter @PaulLogoAP