By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
After their first leg defeat to AC Milan a few weeks ago, Barcelona were staring down the barrel of Champions League elimination. It wasn’t just that they’d lost at San Siro, it was more that they’d been completely outdone. The Rossoneri’s ability to close down space in the right areas, kill any hint of a half-chance, and successfully break when able, made for a perfect platform on which to build their hopes of progressing to the quarter-final draw on Friday.
But Barca bounced back on Tuesday evening. When backed into a corner, they bared their teeth. Yet a Milan with its mind focused on taming the beast should have been able to cope given their position of strength. No team had ever before lost a 2-0 home-leg advantage in the competition, but the Diavolo became the unwanted exception to the rule at Camp Nou. And while this remains a season of some progress given their form before November, the tie represents an opportunity wasted.
It may feel a little harsh to question their tactical approach given how successful the plan for the first leg was three weeks prior, but Massimiliano Allegri got it wrong in Catalunya. Whereas in Milan they were constantly on their guard against the threat of a Barcelona side given space to play, the second leg saw the Diavolo concede far too many opportunities for them to strike.
|MATCH FACTS | Barcelona 4-0 Milan
Lionel Messi, previously unsuccessful from open play against Italian sides, was allowed to pick up possession with far too much regularity and ease. Moreover, the ball just kept coming back to the Argentine as Barca were allowed to regenerate possession at will.
At San Siro, Giampaolo Pazzini – hardly the world’s greatest forward with his back to goal normally – had been able to do enough to buy Milan valuable time on the ball in the opponents’ half of the field with his hold-up play. In his absence at Camp Nou, Allegri decided to use Kevin-Prince Boateng in a quasi-false number nine role which was never going to supply the same kind of threat. What the Rossoneri needed was a way of turning around Barca on a regular basis, but they never had the platform.
Had Robinho or Bojan Krkic been used in the forward line, there would have been more hope of retaining territory and possession with a natural front-line player. Boateng, a midfielder who has been pushed gradually further forward since arriving in Lombardy - as much due to his deficiencies off the ball as his talent on it - simply couldn’t provide that focus.
There were also question marks to be raised over other selections. Kevin Constant was chosen over the defensively superior Mattia De Sciglio, and Milan were made to pay for a poor display by the Guinean on a night when the full-backs were always going to need to show more off the ball than on it. In midfield there was a shortage of energy on those occasions when there was a need to carry the ball across the halfway line and into more favourable territory. Would Sulley Muntari have offered more than Mathieu Flamini?
The general approach was so very different to three weeks ago too. There was something very Italian about the performance in the first leg, yet it took far too long for Milan to get in amongst Barca in the return. And by the time they did, the Catalans’ confidence and energy levels were sky-high already.
M’Baye Niang’s chance seconds before Messi’s second goal will always rightly be viewed as the moment that the tie was lost, but its importance was only increased by the lack of opportunities Milan made for themselves as a result of their fractured tactical make-up.
Just as their Serie A season has been conditioned by a poor opening half, their Champions League campaign has come to an end thanks to a job half done. And while it was always going to be a huge ask for a group of players in their relative infancy to knock out Barcelona, they could have pulled it off if only they had been as savvy in the second game as they were in the first.