Straight from the dark heart of Italy
AC Milan will head to the Camp Nou next week knowing that they will once again have to exert every sinew and fibre of their bodies to deny Barcelona progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
What Massimiliano Allegri’s side will probably need to add to all that effort will be a goal from open play – something they could have had after just two minutes if Robinho had kept his head when left free inside the area, but the Brazilian could only volley high over the bar.
It was certainly not an evening for artists at the San Siro, where once again the pitch was well below the standards of a top-class European venue: in fact, a few hours before kick-off the sprinklers had been on maximum. The soggy top surface was perfect for all those last-ditch sliding tackles that the Milan players would have to put in – and on two occasions Luca Antonini aquaplaned in to deny goal-bound chances.
Pep Guardiola had pointed out in the pre-game press conference that he was expecting the opposition to defend in strength through the middle – but if he was hoping to exploit the flanks, then he was sorely disappointed.
Antonini was hardly beaten on either flank, switching from the left to the right when the equally impressive Daniele Bonera moved into the centre to replace the imperious Alessandro Nesta after the veteran’s back finally gave out.
Allegri had made some crowd-pleasing promises that his side would take the game to the Catalans, but having already conceded three goals to the same opposition at the same venue in the group stages there was no way Milan were going to play an open, expansive game.
It wasn’t exactly catenaccio, but as it had been against AS Roma at the weekend it wasn’t free-flowing football going forward. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was once again left to battle for long balls, although the Swede could have scored early on – but while one part of the gameplan didn't flourish, the other excelled.
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If at times it looked like a training exercise, with Barça patiently passing the ball around in midfield, then Allegri can take credit for schooling his players in the art of defending in the build-up to the encounter.
In front of the back four – which after all was missing regulars Ignazio Abate at right-back and probably the world’s best central defender Thiago Silva – Massimo Ambrosini was another imposing figure.
The club captain might not have played if Mark van Bommel hadn't been suspended, but his harrying of Leo Messi was a key element in keeping the visitors as far away from the penalty area as possible.
Clarence Seedorf – not normally noted for his defensive abilities – and the equally hard-working Antonio Nocerino helped to seal up the centre, forcing the ball to be moved wide where Antonini and Bonera were rarely troubled.
And when the first and second lines of defence were breached, goalkeeper Christian Abbiati smothered the efforts – and in truth there were only two – thrown his way. Only once did the stopper fail to move quickly enough, when Alexis Sanchez burst into the six-yard area only to exaggerate his fall – otherwise it may well have been a penalty.
It was one lapse but it could have been costly and any lack of discipline and organisation in the Nou Camp will surely be punished. The Rossoneri will tackle the return leg with an even more hardened None Shall Pass attitude – but finding an away goal will be just as important.
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