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Mighty Milan block Barca's path to elusive second Cup

Written by: Staff

BARCELONA, Apr 6 (Reuters) Six-times winners AC Milan stand in the way of Barcelona's elusive second European Cup after the Catalans' nervy 2-0 victory over Benfica yesterday.

Barcelona, who beat a much fancied Chelsea side in the first knockout round, are under no illusions about the difficulty of the task awaiting them.

''It will be a really tricky tie,'' said goalkeeper Victor Valdes. ''Last year we played them in the group phase and we know that they are very well organised. They have got some very strong and experienced players and have great quality up front.'' Milan beat Barca 1-0 at the San Siro last season but lost out 2-1 at the Nou Camp after a superb last-gasp goal from Ronaldinho with both teams going through to the knockout phase.

''We know them well,'' said Barca defender Juliano Belletti.

''They've got a wonderful team and we'll have to suffer if we want to get to (the final in) Paris.'' The match will have added interest because the sides' coaches Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti were team mates and played together Milan's triumphs in 1989 and 1990.

Barca won their only European Cup in 1992, Benfica coach Ronald Koeman scoring the winner in their 1-0 triumph over Sampdoria at Wembley.

DREAM TEAM But Johan Cruyff's so-called ''Dream team'' that won four consecutive Spanish league titles were crushed 4-0 by AC Milan when they reached the final again in 1994, a humiliation that still haunts Barca supporters.

''They've been playing at an extremely high level in recent years,'' Rijkaard said. ''Although personally for me the tie will not mean anything special because I have faced them before both as a player and as a coach.

''It'll be a tight game between two very strong sides.'' The two top scorers in this season's competition, Andriy Shevchenko and Ronaldinho face each other in the tie, the Ukrainian having scored nine goals and the Brazilian seven.

The immediate concerns for Rijkaard before the first leg on April 18 will be recovering live-wire Argentine teenager Lionel Messi and influential Mexican defender Rafael Marquez from injury.

The two players have missed recent matches through muscle tears but should both be ready for the match at the San Siro.

Playmaker Xavi could also conceivably be fit following his lengthy lay off after tearing a knee ligament, but he has yet to play a competitive match since sustaining the injury.

One important absence will be Portugal midfielder Deco who was booked and will be suspended for the first leg.

Barca have reached the semi-finals eight times before and have gone on to play in the final four times in 1960, 1986, 1992 and 1994.

The last time they beat Benfica in the competition in 1992, they went on to win.

Reuters DH BD1711

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