Barcelona assistant boss Jordi Roura insisted on Tuesday that his side were not the favourites. Massimiliano Allegri, meanwhile, took time in his pre-match Press conference to declare: “My team will not be sacrificial lambs.”
Most fans may have thought that Milan would be the cattle to the Catalan’s Taser-rod, but the Coach didn’t believe so and neither did the players. Riccardo Montolivo spoke before the match of being ‘excited’ rather than over-awed, Kevin Prince-Boateng called for the San Siro to become a cauldron. Carles Puyol admitted that the Serie A side ‘would prove to be difficult’, Xavi Hernandez called them ‘trouble’.
The Blaugrana had failed to keep a clean sheet in their previous nine games. They had laboured to three points over Granada the previous weekend and struggled to draws against Valencia and Real Madrid. All the signs were there for Milan to pull a result out of the bag – and yet only the most fervent, or deluded, supporters actually thought they could get a positive result.
But on Wednesday night, at the Giuseppe Meazza, the impossible became two letters too long. A starting XI consisting of Sulley Muntari, Kevin Constant and Philippe Mexes defeated ‘the greatest side in history’. A team that just four months ago was being described as ‘the worst in a generation’ had out-muscled, out-thought and out-played the best in Europe.
It was a truly revelatory performance from Allegri’s men, and will surely go down as one of the best in the recent history of the club. Outstanding displays from Montolivo, Massimo Ambrosini and Giampaolo Pazzini were the icing on a cake which belonged to the whole team. Pressing from the front, the Spanish side had no answer to the vim, vigour and sheer persistence of the Diavolo.
Just over a year ago, in the same competition, against the same opponents, the Rossoneri lost their nerve in a 3-2 loss at San Siro. That side, which included Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alessandro Nesta, Thiago Silva and Clarence Seedorf, couldn’t produce the goods when it mattered. But 12 months on, with two forwards young enough to be sporting Mohicans, Milan 2.0 did what the earlier vintage couldn’t.
It wasn’t the most exciting of games – in fact the first half was nigh on dull – but the plan was laid out, and executed, to perfection. As Muntari said after the match: “We were very disciplined and managed to close every angle down so they couldn’t penetrate us. The best player for us tonight was Coach Allegri.”
The sight of Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin-Prince Boateng tracking back, Montolivo and Ambrosini doing a job on Lionel Messi, Pazzini bullying Puyol and Gerard Pique – for all fans of calcio it was a genuine ‘told you so’ moment. The whole XI attacked and defended with intelligence – allowing the visitors just two shots on target all evening.
Of course, teams have beaten Barcelona in Europe before – Celtic in the group stages, Chelsea in last season’s semi-final. But not like this. The Scottish champions relied on pure luck and the genius of Fraser Forster. Roberto Di Matteo’s men had a missed Messi penalty to thank. Milan though, never looked like losing. The continent’s top-scorers didn’t even threaten to beat Christian Abbiati. The performance from the hosts was measured, astute and absolute right.
There’s still a second-leg to be played. And the Camp Nou is a fortress. But with a 2-0 lead and the confidence that comes with this win, the question is – how far can this young Milan team go?