Watch out Barcelona, it's the dawning of a new era in Milan

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True legends never die – they just doze off for a bit. Milan might not quite be the fearsome behemoth of yesteryear just yet, but they certainly look much refreshed for a brief power nap. Going into a taxing week, Massimiliano Allegri’s side have the sort of spring in their steps that few expected during the season’s opening stanza.

Tonight’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Barcelona is a game that drips with history, but it is one that many supporters of the Rossoneri would have anticipated watching through their fingers back in autumn. 

The start of this season’s European campaign was a ghastly goalless draw at home to modest Anderlecht. The Belgian side’s goalkeeper, Silvio Proto, said before the game his father was a big Milan fan. It was hard to decide whether Papa Proto would have been more worried about his team’s fall from grace or the prospect of his under-employed son catching cold at the San Siro on the night. 

Domestically, things were even worse. After a humiliating fourth home defeat of the season against Fiorentina in mid-November, Milan were left marooned in the bottom half, twelve points behind city rivals Inter. 

Now, they will go into Sunday's derby as strong favourites, a point ahead of Andrea Stramaccioni’s men in fourth (and on the cusp of the Champions League places) after the Nerazzurri were themselves shown up by the Viola on Sunday night, in a 4-1 thrashing in which the scoreline frankly flattered Inter. 

Internationally, the Milan profile has of course been given a boost by the arrival of Mario Balotelli, and his influence extends beyond the early flurry of goals he has provided. 

As Barbara Berlusconi said in the wake of Balotelli’s signing, it is an important signal that Milan are still a name that matters, to competitors, but also to their own supporters and players. 

Balotelli completes a pleasingly mohawked attacking triumvirate with Stephan El Sharaawy (20 years old) and M'Baye Niang (18), who represent a new, fresh Milan. At last, they are moving away from the image of a proud, creaky old ships sailed by ancient mariners. 

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has expressed his delight that Balotelli and El Sharaawy will be cementing their promising international strike partnership on a regular basis at club level. Milan have a clear future.  

The main business of the week may be the derby, with ensuring a continuous presence in the Champions League as crucial to the club’s finances as the heartbreaking sales of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Still, the chance of glory against Barça is not being sniffed at by anybody at the club. 

“It annoys me that we are already considered as a sacrificial victim,” Allegri told the pre-match press conference. “Unless the regulations change before Wednesday, we will start at 0-0.” 

Balotelli is cup-tied, but as well as the young pups wanting to carve a place in Rossoneri history, this is a chance for the unsung heroes. One such is Riccardo Montolivo, a free signing from Fiorentina last summer and a player who has held the midfield together almost single-handedly at times this season. 

Denied the chance to play for Milan as a teenager when his father deemed the club was too far from the family home, he will - at 29 - relish a belated opportunity to lock horns with the fit-again Xavi.

Rarely can Milan have been so unfancied for a Champions League fixture. Yet the club with more final appearances than any other has that record for a reason –regeneration. A new era is ready to dawn. 

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