How Milan defended Barca’s attack
Stop Lionel Messi and you’ll stop Barcelona. Or at least that’s what many people think is the ultimate solution to stop the unstoppable machine that is FC Barcelona. It was a rare occasion in which the little genius was frustrated for 90 minutes as AC Milan held out for a goalless draw at home to the reigning European Champions in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie.
It was Milan who had the best chance of the game from open play, while it was Barcelona that had the most contentious decision of the game ruled against them. Within the third minute, striker Robinho had the goal gaping after Sergio Busquet’s mistake allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to find Robinho only for the Brazilian to fluff his shot with goalkeeper Victor Valdes helpless. A glorious chance was put over the bar and one wondered whether the hosts would get such a good chance again all night.
There were so many factors that contributed to Barcelona not scoring a goal for the first time in a match since January 28 this year. Their predictable approach, Milan’s rugged defending, and Pep Guardiola’s unexpected team selection where Carlos Puyol played at left-back and Cesc Fabregas stayed on the bench despite the unimpressive performance of Seydou Keita for the whole of the match might have had a role for a slightly below par performance from the Catalans.
There was even the case of the poor condition of the pitch for which the visitors formally complained to UEFA about after the match. This is the same pitch remember, where Messi slipped while taking a freekick from a goal-scoring position early on and the same pitch which was in appalling condition when Arsenal came here in February.
The one moment Guardiola will feel went against his side was a genuine penalty appeal turned down in the fourteenth minute. A cleverly taken freekick resulted in winger Alexis Sanchez being put through on goal only to be brought down by Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. Replays showed Abbiati getting Sanchez rather than the ball but the referee decided against pointing to the spot. One wonders why UEFA employs extra linesmen behind each goal in European games if they can’t make a difference in moments like that.
While Barcelona were going forward in their usual dangerous style, Milan were often good on the counter, only for their two forwards Robinho and Ibrahimovic – two players famous both for their talent and for bottling big games- to make the wrong moves. The Rossoneri also had the exciting Kevin Prince Boateng as another threat in attack. His very presence on the team sheet must have frightened the Barcelona defenders after the wonder goal he scored when these two sides met in the group stages in November.
Messi’s only significant moment in the first half came when he put the ball in the net before the offside flag was promptly up. That was perhaps a wake-up call for the San Siro outfit who then went forward and had another great chance wasted- this time by Ibrahimovic-. After Xavi of all people was dispossessed, the Swede was put through on goal but a tame shot was easily held by Valdes. Ibrahimovic- who is always fired up when facing his ex-side with a point to prove- knew he should have done better.
The rest of the half saw Barcelona settle into their rhythm of possession but lacked the final ball which they are so renowned for. On no occasion was this more evident than when just past the half-hour mark, Sanchez opted for an extravagant backheel to Messi rather than shooting himself with the option of an extra touch.
The second half started off much as the first with Barcelona keeping the ball and Milan looking sharp on the offensive. Milan’s experience with Nesta, Seedorf and Ambrosini was telling over the raw young talents of Sanchez and substitute Cristian Tello. The latter in particular was guilty for erroneous decisions on the ball, and even the otherwise soft-spoken Messi gave him some flak for hitting a shot in the side-netting instead of squaring it to the World Player of the Year. Tello himself replaced a team-mate having an unexpectedly average night by his high standards; Andres Iniesta.
Milan continued to steady the ship in defence with Djamel Mesbah replacing the booked Alessandro Nesta to bring fresh legs at the back for the last quarter of an hour. The disappointing Robinho was replaced by Stephan El Shaarawy while Boateng’s replacement Urby Emanuelson missed the opportunity of a sensational entry to the game when poor ball control prevented him from shooting on goal within seconds of his arrival on the pitch. Veteran captain Puyol came close to heading in from a corner but it was not to be his team’s night.
Milan held out with the hero of the game being defender Luca Antonini who made two sensational blocks (one in each half) to prevent Barca from striking on Abbiati’s goal. The latter did spill a couple of shots in the game but Antonini’s heroics absorbed him of any costly mistake in this game.
It might not have been attractive football but it did the job; at least for the first leg. It won’t be the slightest bit easy to get a result as a visiting team at the Nou Camp, but the stalemate in Italy leaves this quarter-final in the balance ahead of tonight’s second leg.
Read more by Rumman Islam here.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.