When you are playing against the greatest team in the world, are missing your midfield filter, two quarters of your defence and the third quarter has a limp, you could be forgiven for expecting a thrashing. Instead, Milan’s performance against Barcelona was an impressive display in how to defend without resorting to catenaccio.
I will admit I feared the worst when the Rossoneri went into the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final without Thiago Silva, Ignazio Abate, Mark van Bommel, Alexandre Pato and the other crowd of players in the treatment room. It’s not a reassuring thought for the hobbling 36-year-old legs of Alessandro Nesta on his comeback from injury to take on Lionel Messi in spectacular form. How would Nesta keep up with him, we all asked? The answer was he didn’t have to. The wily old fox proved that the best way to stop Messi is not by chasing aimlessly after the shimmying figure, but to wait, observe and pick the right moment to pinch the ball off his foot. It was beautifully done and reminiscent of Franco Baresi in his later Milan years, when pace was unnecessary because he read the game in advance.
When rapid limbs were needed, Luca Antonini was there with perhaps his best ever performance in a Milan jersey. The full-back blocked at least two clear scoring opportunities with his perfectly-timed sprints back and sliding tackles. He fully deserved his UEFA Man of the Match award. Even Daniele Bonera and Philippe Mexes kept their cool, avoiding their traditional silly mistakes. It’s amazing to think this motley crew stopped Barça scoring in the Champions League for the first time since November 2009.
Christian Abbiati did seem to be unusually nervous and fumbled quite a few times, not to mention he was fortunate to escape without giving away a penalty for that challenge on Alexis Sanchez. Of course, one might excuse his worry considering the makeshift defence in front of him was on shaky ground – both figuratively and literally, seeing as the San Siro turf was falling to bits. I do wish casual viewers (and pundits) would stop suggesting Milan damage the pitch on purpose to hurt Arsenal or Barcelona’s chances. If anyone has suffered because of this playing surface, then it is Massimiliano Allegri’s slick passing side.
Milan defended diligently, but the performance was not what I’d call ‘defensive.’ Both teams created scoring opportunities and their strikers really should’ve done better. I am beginning to wonder if Robinho has some sort of medical condition that blurs his vision when confronted with an open goal. Maybe it’s like snow-blindness – the perfect clarity of the scoring opportunity in front of him prompts dizzy spells and confusion. I bet if you asked Robinho to shoot at an open goal or through a sea of legs, he’d only get the latter on target.
The fact remains that this first leg has left qualification wide open. Milan only need a score draw at the Camp Nou, which they have already achieved this season with that 2-2 result in the group phase. Perhaps some key players will recover for the second leg, or at least be able to play more than an hour. All three of Allegri’s substitutions were for players returning from long-term injuries. The 0-0 gives the Rossoneri hope, but also excludes the arrogance of thinking the job is already done that almost cost them so dearly with Arsenal.
If Milan really do manage to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League during an epic injury crisis with a completely reshuffled defence, then it’ll be an amazing achievement. After this first leg, it's not entirely out of the question. As wise old hand Clarence Seedorf said, “every side has a weak spot.”