AUXERRE, November 22 – AC Milan approach their penultimate Champions League group stage game at Auxerre on Tuesday with their hopes of reaching the knockout phase in the balance.
Victory for Milan, coupled with defeat for Ajax at home to Real Madrid, would send the seven-time champions into the last 16.
Defeat, however, would drop Massimiliano Allegri’s to the foot of Group G if it coincided with a win for Ajax against a Madrid side who may take their foot off the gas now that their own progress has been assured.
Milan will take heart from a superb run of recent form that has seen them scale the Serie A summit on the back of four straight wins.
Fiorentina were the latest side to fall to the Rossoneri, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s acrobatic volley proving the difference between the sides when they met at San Siro on Saturday.
It took the Swede’s goal tally for the season to 10 in all competitions and his ability to find the net has acquired extra importance in the absence through injury of fellow strikers Alexandre Pato and Filippo Inzaghi.
Allegri, though, believes his team have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of functioning without their big-name stars.
"Despite all the injury problems we have to deal with, the team has found its balance," said the Milan coach.
"It’s an important thing, because it means that those who play do well."
Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati has described Tuesday’s game at Stade l’Abbe-Deschamps as "a final" due to its importance for both sides.
Auxerre are currently ninth in Ligue 1 after drawing 1-1 at Saint-Etienne on Saturday, but they have not tasted defeat since a 2-1 loss at Ajax on October 19 — a run of eight games.
"We’re facing an in-form Auxerre on Tuesday," warned Allegri.
"That game and the one against Ajax will be decisive. They’ll determine our fate in the Champions League."
Auxerre’s slender squad has been stretched to the limit by their European exertions, but coach Jean Fernandez still believes they are capable of springing a shock against Milan.
"In one match, anything is possible at Stade l’Abbe-Deschamps," he said.
"We showed that against Ajax (2-1 victory). We almost succeeded against Real (0-1 defeat). So why not Milan? That’s our state of mind."
Auxerre will welcome back right-back Cedric Hengbart from a thigh injury, while Conoglese defensive midfielder Delvin N’Dinga should be fit despite taking a bang to his knee against Saint-Etienne.
Centre-back Jean-Pascol Mignot is suspended, and will likely be replaced by Stephane Grichting, but Kenyan forward Dennis Oliech is available again after missing the defeat of Ajax through suspension.
"We’re dealing with it well," said skipper Benoit Pedretti of Auxerre’s injury situation, which has robbed the club of last season’s top scorer Ireneusz Jelen (knee) and summer signing Anthony Le Tallec (ankle).
"Nobody complains because, in the end, everyone gets a chance to play."
Allegri is expected to align Italian international Andrea Pirlo in midfield, after he was rested for the game with Fiorentina.
Robinho should continue to partner Ibrahimovic in attack, but his Brazil team-mate Ronaldinho will start on the bench after being punished for an unauthorised late-night excursion on Thursday evening.