Straight from the dark heart of Italy
With an average age of 29.2, AC Milan have the oldest squad in the Champions League – and on Tuesday evening at the Camp Nou it showed in the way the team played as a mature unit.
Barcelona were limited to two goals but furthermore Massimiliano Allegri’s side very rarely looked in real trouble– and when the Catalans did manage to shoot Christian Abbiati was there in the Rossoneri goal doing his job.
NEWS REPORT: Milan snatch draw at holders Barcelona
One player, however, stood out head and shoulders above all the other old-stagers and even that young sprit Leo Messi: Alessandro Nesta. A commanding performance in the heart of a blanket defence brought back memories of his displays at Euro 2000 for Italy.
He's 35 now and can hardly get out of bed in the morning, so bad is his back pain, but the Roman picked the perfect moment to remind football fans all over Europe that there is still life in those old, long legs.
One challenge on Messi, just as the striker was about to pull the trigger inside the area, left the little Argentinian banging his fists into the turf in frustration – and no doubt incredulous that anyone could have timed a tackle to such perfection.
Nesta’s career looked to be winding down last season and there were some hints that he may call it a day, but decided to carry on with a specially-tailored training programme while carefully listening to what his body tells him. Milan can be thankful he has, especially with new signing Philippe Mexes still a month or so away from full fitness.
In fact, so important is Nesta’s presence alongside Thiago Silva that Allegri asked him to play through the pain barrier last Friday in Milan's season-opening fixture against Lazio, and although he was wincing from the first minute he still managed to deny Djibril Cissè a late winner.
In fact, the thirtysomethings throughout the side could have been equally proud of their displays at Barcelona. Gianluca Zambrotta marshalled the lightning-quick Dani Alves, forcing the full-back (or is he really a winger?) inside on just about every occasion. Mark van Bommel shored up the centre of midfield on his return to his old club. And then there was Clarence Seedorf, exhibiting such a velvet touch that you expected the ball to swoon.
From Pato’s opener on 24 seconds to Thiago Silva’s last-minute equaliser, it was one of those resounding team performances on which Italian clubs thrive: one in which they are played off the pitch but still manage to grind out a result – and in Italy football is all about the final score.
A draw at the Camp Nou will renew confidence that maybe the oldies can top the group and Milan will also take heart from the fact that when they defeated Liverpool in the final in 2007 the average age of the team was 30.2 – the oldest ever to win a Champions League.
Inter Milan, for their part, are just old and worn out – certainly in defence and in midfield, where they failed to get to grips with a lively Trabzonspor side, just has they had failed to tighten up at the back against Palermo on the opening day of the season.
NEWS REPORT: Trabzonspor humble Inter at San Siro
At least it was just the one goal conceded – unlike last Sunday, when the Nerazzurri leaked four goals, and their last Champions League home game, when they conceded five to Schalke – but the repercussions are set to be felt more deeply. Qualification has not yet been thrown away, but Inter are by no means sure to finish top of a group they expected to stroll through.
Gian Piero Gasperini may not be around to plot the side’s way back into the campaign. Even before the season started the pressure was on the new coach, who now probably needs to avoid defeat to AS Roma at the weekend to save his job.
No such worries for Walter Mazzarri, whose Napoli side followed Milan in demonstrating, with their precious draw at Manchester City, that the art of intelligent defending and counter-attacking football is still very much alive.
NEWS REPORT: Kolarov saves point for debutants City
Mazzarri would have probably taken such a result before kick-off but in truth Napoli could have returned home with all three points: Ezequiel Lavezzi hit the bar and Marek Hamsik had a volley cleared off the line before Edinson Cavani’s fine finish on the counter-attack.
City also smashed the woodwork and if there was one criticism of the Azzurri it was that they defended too deeply but that may have been to alleviate their lack of pace at the back.
However, their European adventure is up and running, providing the perfect fillip ahead of Sunday's arrival at the San Paolo of Serie A’s other defender of Italian honour: champions Milan.
Inter are in real trouble. A defeat to CSKA in the next game will leave them with a mountain to climb. It's not the easiest of groups, but the home game against Trabzonspor would have been seen as a must win. Milan did quite well. It was great to see the battle between Nesta and Messi. They've given themselves a chance of topping the group now. As for Napoli, they played well. The defending throughout was good, despite giving away too many frees around the box. The front 3 also looked dangerous, especially in the second half. The home game with Villareal is vital. A win will give them a good chance of a top 2 finish.
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