Barcelona were at their brilliant best in dismantling Milan to overturn their Champions League first leg deficit. Luca Cetta writes.
Lionel Messi had confidence in Barcelona. “We know it is complicated by the result of the first leg, but we can turn it around. As they won, so can we. We are confident that we can overcome this.” Meanwhile, Milan were aware they had to frustrate their opponents for as long as possible to reach the quarter-finals. That went out the window after just five minutes. The Argentine wizard gave Christian Abbiati no chance with a sublime finish, halving the 2-0 San Siro deficit. By half-time Milan’s lead was wiped out thanks to that man again.
In between was a game played seemingly in fast-forward. The Rossoneri were pinned on the ropes, unable to land a blow while repeatedly taking heavy hits. Barcelona were relentless and pounded away. When Milan looked to land a punch Barca would unleash a quick jab to respond – on most occasions. Stephan El Shaarawy and glaringly, M’Baye Niang, had chances to snatch Milan a precious away goal. The 18-year-old hit the post when through on goal and 120 seconds later Messi was celebrating his second.
David Villa was quiet but netted the important third early in the second half. Important yes, but not quite a tie-winner. The Blaugrana had the aggregate advantage, but an away goal would change it all. The tie was not settled until the final minute when an awful Milan free-kick gave Messi the chance to launch a counter-attack. Jordi Alba slotted past Abbiati to send Milan crashing out.
Massimo Ambrosini claimed Milan were not up to task in the Camp Nou. “It’s the end of a dream,” said a crestfallen captain. “We were not up to it tonight. We suffered from the start and it wasn’t the performance we needed.”
When the draw was announced in December, Massimiliano Allegri’s side were all but written off. They had no chance in hell it was said. The reality was far different. Milan’s tactically astute first leg gave them a real shot at qualification. At times in the return the Rossoneri threatened to silence most of the 90,000 plus in attendance, Niang’s opportunity the most obvious. Even when three down Milan had fleeting moments to shock. It looked as if Barca may crack. But going forward they were simply devastating. Messi’s finishes were brilliant, Alba’s strike a fine conclusion for the Spanish side.
It was a gallant Milan throughout the 180 minutes, even if in the latter 90 they were outplayed. “This defeat is disappointing for the club, the fans and the lads, as they gave their all and hoped to achieve something remarkable,” said Allegri. “Tonight it was tough against this Barcelona, yet we kept it open to the end and when 3-0 down had some chances that could’ve gone better.”
He did have one regret. “It’s a shame we tended to give Barcelona opportunities by failing to clear the ball properly.” Too often Milan were guilty of coughing up possession cheaply. It led to an abundance of pressure on the defence, and the second goal. In part this can be attributed to the host's pressing, but also Milan’s inexperienced squad were overawed by the occasion.
Could the Coach have done things differently? It’s easy to make judgments after the fact. He chose Kevin Constant over Mattia De Sciglio, Mathieu Flamini over Sulley Muntari, and was hampered by Giampaolo Pazzini’s absence, so went for youngster Niang in attack. Certainly they sat much deeper in this match and forgot what gave them the advantage in the first place.
“In order to play these games, you need legs and I made these choices. If Niang had scored, my choice would’ve been praised,” rebutted Allegri.
Just like their elimination at the same venue last season, Milan will look back with a tinge of regret. But they were up against a monster and that this Rossoneri outfit, which has been through so much this season, gave Barcelona such a fright must not be forgotten.