Unusually for a visiting side to the east end of Glasgow, AC Milan were expected to view Celtic Park as a sanctuary tonight.
However, Kaka quickly assured those present at the stadium for a delayed press conference yesterday evening that this is not the case.
The Brazilian midfielder stressed that even given all the unrest that spilled over inside their San Siro stadium at the weekend, he and his Milan teammates were in agreement about one thing – they would still prefer to be playing tonight’s critical Champions League fixture in front of their own currently dissatisfied fans rather than in front of Celtic’s passionately partisan ones.
Celtic supporters can take this as a major compliment, since San Siro looks a particularly uninviting place for the Rossoneri at present. Nevertheless, what they have endured there of late is still preferable to the sound of over 60,000 fans cheering the opposition on, as will be the case tonight. “For me, I still prefer to play in the San Siro, even in the current situation we are going through now,” said Kaka, when asked whether it was a relief to be playing away from Milan after such an unusually hostile experience at the weekend, when their fans turned on them after a 1-1 draw with Genoa.
“I always feel better when the fans sing for me. Playing against Celtic here with their support is really tough for us. But we have to try and enjoy it.”
Kaka has played at Celtic Park before and knows what to expect. Milan have mostly good memories of the stadium, though they did lose here on their last visit – when their goalkeeper, Dida, was confronted by a Celtic supporter in a 2-1 defeat six years ago. When Milan won the European Cup for the second time in 1969, they knocked out Celtic in the quarter-finals after a 1-0 win at Parkhead in the second leg.
In 2007, on their way to a traumatic final against Liverpool in Athens, they again beat Celtic 1-0 on aggregate, this time at the last 16 stage. This latest date with the Glasgow side might normally have their fans dreaming of another final. However, destiny is one thing and the reality of their situation quite another. Under fire manager Massimiliano Allegri expressed the hope that tonight’s clash can be a turning point for his side, who have not won in seven matches.
“This is certainly an important match if not necessarily a decisive match in the race to qualify,” he said. “It will be difficult because we know Celtic are a very strong team.
“Too many times recently we have had false dawns so let’s see what happens tomorrow night. But in terms of our performance against Genoa and what happens against Celtic, Serie A and the Champions League are two very different competitions. But we will be doing the ground-work to make sure we are as prepared as we possibly can be. One of our two main aims this season is to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.”
AC Milan left the majority of the agitated denizens of the Curva Sud behind yesterday, after a trying weekend. The draw against ten-man Genoa means the aristocrats of Italian football are languishing in 11th place in Serie A – just four points off a relegation place.
The fallen Italian giants were also late Italian giants last night. The team’s flight from Milan to Glasgow was delayed yesterday, though not because of further summit meetings with furious fans. Kaka admitted that it had been a slightly unnerving experience meeting members of fans’ group the Ultras, who formed a blockade preventing the players leaving after the draw with Genoa. Some supporters had already held up banners underlining their anger at recent poor results. One read: “See you at the exits …unworthy!”
Kaka acknowledged that meeting fans in this way “is not something that I am used to doing”. He added: “If I am seen as one of the senior members of the squad then I have to get used to this responsibility.
“Since I arrived back at the club in the summer, the question of leadership has been raised.
“So far it has only really been in words, but now it has to be in attitude, too. We need to produce on the field, and speaking to the supporters after the Genoa game was not a huge burden to me.
“It’s not something I am used to doing, but if I am seen as one of the senior players in the squad, then it is something I must do.”
Celtic fans have been lapping up tales of in-fighting at Milan, although Allegri was firm with his denial yesterday that the squad was riven with ill- discipline and disrespect for him. He rejected outright one question about five players, including Mario Balotelli and Robinho, turning up late for training on Sunday.
“What makes me angry is false information,” he said, on the only occasion that he betrayed signs that the pressure is getting to him. “Reports that five players were late are nonsense. I’d like to know where these stories come from?”
He denied that he and Balotelli had fallen out, and confirmed that the Italian striker will start this evening. Kaka also backed his at-times wayward team-mate, who missed a penalty against Genoa on Saturday, while also issuing support for his manager. “Mario is a player I enjoy working alongside,” he said. “It is always difficult when a striker is not scoring goals and I’m sure he will cast aside his problems pretty quickly as soon as he scores a goal.
“I don’t know if the manager has had problems in the past with players, but all I know is that, at the moment, he is trying to help Mario to find his best form.
“It is certainly not the manager’s fault and Mario respects him just as all the players do. It is not a question of bad attitude or breakdown in communications. The manager has a good relationship with us all.
“We are always under pressure at Milan,” he added. “After seven matches without a win, that pressure, of course, gets more and more.”