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It began like so many other Saturdays at Cagliariâs practice facility, the manager Rolando Maran coming in from training to update reporters on the injuries and fitness concerns affecting his first-team squad. It took a turn towards atypical shortly afterwards, as players lined up in the street to kick over milk churns and spill their contents into the road.
This was not on the schedule. After speaking to the press, Maran was supposed to board the team bus with his players and head to the airport for a flight to Milan â where they would play the following evening.
Instead, Cagliari found themselves blocked in by a group of disgruntled dairy producers, who had come to ask them to join in a solidarity strike. It was the latest move in a weekend of protests on the island of Sardinia, where dairy producers have accused cheesemakers of using their collective purchasing power to keep the price of milk unsustainably low.
Cagliariâs CEO, Mario Passetti, led a delegation to speak with protesters. Plainly, the club could not comply with requests to boycott Sundayâs game. The gesture of emptying churns â something farmers have been doing in streets and town centres across Sardinia â was a mutually acceptable compromise.
It was a scene that Maran could probably have done without. Away games against Milan are a daunting prospect at the best of times, and especially at a moment when his team is being dragged towards a relegation dogfight. Cagliari had won only once since the start of November.
Yet the dairy producersâ cause is close to the hearts of many at a club whose island roots are a firm part of its identity. Before kick-off against Milan on Sunday, players wore T-shirts in support of the farmers. At full-time, midfielder NicolÃ² Barella reinforced the sentiment to reporters. âIâm a pure-bred Sardinian,â he said. âThis is a story that has touched us a lot and it was important to make a gesture of solidarity. We wanted to get a result for them, too, but the match went in a different direction.â
The full-time score was 3-0 to Milan, and it did not flatter the Rossoneri. Barella has been one of the revelations of this Serie A season, a 22-year-old force of nature whose ferocious tackling and line-breaking runs won him a place in the Italian national team, yet he too has faded in recent times and was overwhelmed here by opponents reinvigorated by a pair of January signings.
Krzysztof Piatek has hit the ground running for Milan, just as he did at Genoa after arriving from KS Cracovia last summer. This was the Polish strikerâs third start for his latest club and he marked it by scoring his fourth goal. You could call it the least important of Sundayâs game, the last in a three-goal triumph, yet Cagliari had been threatening to come back into the game, hitting the crossbar through JoÃ£o Pedro moments before.
Besides, it is not as though anyone could call him a flat-track bully. Piatekâs previous three goals for Milan had earned a 2-0 win over Napoli in the Coppa Italia and a league draw at Roma.
Even more eye-catching on this occasion, though, was Lucas PaquetÃ¡ in midfield. When the Brazilian completed his move from Flamengo at the start of last month, the assumption was that he might need time to acclimatise. So far, that has not been the case.
He scored Milanâs second goal here, arriving right on cue to meet Davide Calabriaâs cross, but that was nothing like the sum of his contribution. PaquetÃ¡ was a constant source of energy down the left, winning possession as consistently as any other player on the team but also distributing it with greater vision and finesse.
Even during Milanâs dismal end to 2018 â they went four games without a goal before finally scraping a 2-1 win against Spal â they showed signs of being a team in Gennaro Gattusoâs image, industrious and able to dominate opponents in a physical battle. What the team lacked was invention: Franck KessiÃ© still runs with his head down too much and Hakan Calhanoglu is unjustifiably selfish for a player who never scores.
It is too soon for sweeping conclusions, but never too soon, it seems, to start lumbering fresh talent with the memories of a brighter past. By full-time, images of Piatek leaping on PaquetÃ¡âs shoulders were being contrasted online with old ones of Andriy Shevchenko and KakÃ¡.
The moment captured on Sunday was actually one of mixed emotions. As he celebrated his first goal for the club, PaquetÃ¡ was raising an arm in memory of the 10 teenage footballers who died during a fire in a dormitory at Flamengoâs training centre last week. âFor me this is a very difficult moment,â said PaquetÃ¡. âItâs a dream to be playing for Milan and a dream to score but I lived for 10 years in that boarding house. It was my home.â
The happy memories he is making in a new home cannot erase the pain for the one left behind.Topics Serie A Sportblog Milan Cagliari European club football features Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content
Either side of losing 3-0 and 2-0 away and home to Madrid, Roma saw off Victoria Plzen 5-0 and earned back-to-back wins over CSKA Moscow, which would prove to be enough to seal a place in the last 16.
That is despite losing to Plzen in the return fixture, leaving them two points better off that the Czech side and Russian giants CSKA.
Roma were always expected to join Los Blancos in the first knockout round and so it proved, but their record at this stage of the competition is mixed to say the least.
The 1983-84 European Cup runners-up may have reached the semi-finals last season, where they were beaten by Liverpool on aggregate, but they had lost five successive matches in the round of 16 prior to edging out Shakhtar Donetsk in the second leg 12 months ago.
Eusebio Di Francesco's side have won three and lost three of their last-16 matches to date, overcoming Lyon in 2007 and Real in 2008 - their first two appearances at this stage - before suffering defeats to Shakhtar in 2011 and Real in 2016.
Then came the aggregate triumph over Shakhtar last season that would pave the way for a magical run to the final four, which the Giallorossi will be aiming to replicate this time around.
Roma famously beat Barcelona in the quarters, despite trailing 4-1 from the first leg, thanks to a 3-0 triumph on home soil in the return match. The Italian side tend to perform well at the Stadio Olimpico, winning seven in a row there in continental matches prior to Madrid's 2-0 victory in November.
The Giallorossi have now won eight of their last 16 home matches in the Champions League, qualifying rounds included, and Di Eusebio will know the importance of earning a win of some sort in Tuesday's first leg.
After returning to winning ways domestically with a 3-0 victory away to Chievo on Friday, a little over a week on from shipping seven in a humbling Coppa Italia exit at the hands of Fiorentina, Roma will consider themselves favourites to come out on top in this first leg of a close-to-call tie.
Recent form in Champions League: LWWWLL
Recent form (all competitions): WWDLDW
Like Roma, who were assured of a place in the last 16 of the competition with a couple of games to spare, Porto also had some breathing space as they cruised through the group phase with 16 points from a possible 18.
Porto then went on to beat Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow home and away, as well as getting the better of Schalke in the return match at the Estadio do Dragao, to finish 12 points better off than Galatasaray in third.
There is no doubt that the Dragons are deserving of their place in the knockout stage, then, accumulating more points in the group phase than any other side in the competition.
Having gone unbeaten in their six group matches, Porto are now without defeat in European competition since going down 5-0 to Liverpool in the first leg of their last-16 tie last season. Since then, it is five wins and two draws, setting a club record along the way for successive victories by winning the last five.
That heavy home loss to Liverpool will not be forgotten in a hurry, though, and the Primeira Liga outfit will see this as a chance to put things right.
Porto are competing in the Champions League post-Christmas for a third year in a row, but they have not made it to the quarter-finals since 2014-15. The Dragons have won just one of their last five last-16 ties and have just three wins from 10 overall.
By virtue of finishing top of their group, however, Sergio Conceicao's side have been gifted a winnable tie and will consider themselves favourites to make it through.
Porto are unbeaten in their last five matches on their travels in Europe, most recently beating Galatasaray 3-2 in Turkey, and they have won five of their nine two-legged ties against Italian opposition.
Conceicao may have witnessed his side drop four points in their last two league matches, but their form in Europe has been impressive and not many will write off the Blue and Whites' chances of sealing a place in the last eight for the first time in four years.
Recent form in Champions League: DWWWWW
Recent form (all competitions): WWLWDD
Kostas Manolas returned to training at the weekend and is in contention to feature in the first leg, though Di Francesco may give the centre-back a few more days to recover from a niggling injury issue.
There will be no Patrick Schick for the hosts, however, as he picked up a knock against Chievo, so Justin Kluivert may be handed a start in the forward line.
Roma will have a fully fit Edin Dzeko in their starting ranks, meanwhile, with the striker scoring in all five of the Giallorossi's knockout matches in last season's competition.
Porto certainly do not lack experience in goal as they can call upon Iker Casilla, who recently racked up his 100th Champions League victory when the Dragons held off Galatasaray in their final group outing.
Roma possible starting lineup:
Mirante; Karsdorp, Marcano, Jesus, Kolarov; Zaniolo, N'zonzi, Cristante; El Shaarawy, Dzeko, Kluivert
Porto possible starting lineup:
Casillas; Militao, Felipe, Pepe, Telles; Pereira, Torres, Herrera; Otavio, Soares, Brahimi
Porto are unbeaten in their four previous competitive meetings with Roma, knocking out the Italian side in the second round of the 1981-82 European Cup and in the 2016-17 Champions League playoffs.
That most recent encounter two seasons ago saw the Dragons run out 3-0 winners at the Stadio Olimpico through goals from Felipe, Miguel Layun and Jesus Corona following a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
The 2016 loss to Porto was only Roma's second in their last 11 matches against Portuguese clubs, winning five and drawing the other four.
Porto will be looking to continue their dominance over Roma when the sides reunite in the Italian capital on Tuesday, having won those previous two European ties. The Portuguese side are unbeaten in their last five Champions League away matches and the Italian hosts have won seven of their last eight continental matches at the Stadio Olimpico, setting up what should be an incredibly tight opening 90 minutes.
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