By Simone Gambino
It can be done!
As AC Milan approach their big date with Barcelona this evening, they do so with knowledge and experience behind them. Rather than suffering from the kind of fear many have succumbed to when facing the Blaugrana, Massimiliano Allegri's side have had the benefit of two 'warm-ups' already this season.
The pair of Champions League group fixtures between the teams in September and November gave the Milan coach the chance to study at first hand the near-perfect Barca machine and pre-empt potential weaknesses which his side could exploit in tonight's quarter-final first leg. Imposing though it may be, this particular machine is not infallible.
On paper, Milan gave Barca a really good go in those two group fixtures, registering a 2-2 away draw before going down 3-2 in a home game remembered most amongst Rossoneri fans for the highly dubious penalty given in Barcelona's favour. Though they may not have been knockout matches, it is hard to believe that the two sides were not pushing hard on the accelerator pedal, particularly in the second clash, when top spot in the group was up for grabs.
The Diavolo, lucky and submissive in the opening draw, paradoxically gained a great deal of confidence from the matchday five contest. They found new holes in the Barcelona armoury, and learned plenty about what they should and shouldn't do this time around.
|SEP 13, 2011 (MATCHDAY 1): BARCELONA 2-2 MILAN
THE SELECTIONS - Milan arrived without both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, with a midfield still in the process of being molded together. Antonio Nocerino stepped into the shoes of Gennaro Gattuso for the first time, with no licence to attack; Clarence Seedorf was clearly suffering on the left side of the central three, while Massimo Ambrosini had to replace the injured Kevin-Prince Boateng after only half an hour. Alberto Aquilani and Urby Emanuelson were detailed to strike from range after coming on in the second half, while in attack were the odd couple of Antonio Cassano and Alexandre Pato.
THE MATCH - The lightning flash of Pato tore through the apparent calm of Barcelona but also consigned Milan to a whole game of defending. The Rossoneri allowed the home side to make use of possession, defending instead in strict order, but it was always going to take something for that plan not to be ripped apart by a single magnificent pass from Xavi and Co. Unsurprisingly, goals from Pedro and David Villa arrived, leaving Milan's containing game plan in tatters, only for Thiago Silva's injury-time header to rescue them. They left Camp Nou unbeaten. Just.
THE ANALYSIS - Milan's performance in the opening game was perfect and imperfect at the same time. Being able to win a point against such a well-oiled passing machine, despite missing Ibrahimovic and playing a long way from their best, was quite a feat. It is true that the Rossoneri suffered considerably in the face of the Blaugrana's supremacy for much of the match, but never more so than on this occasion had the end justified the means. It would be wrong in any case to attack them totally, given the way they got off the canvas like a punch-drunk boxer hitting back.
|NOV 23, 2011 (MATCHDAY 5): MILAN 2-3 BARCELONA
THE SELECTIONS - Allegri chose a more technically-adept XI, giving up a runner in Nocerino for the industry and experience of Seedorf and Aquilani alongside Mark van Bommel. Ahead of them came the trio of Boateng, Ibrahimovic and Robinho, with the Brazilian preferred to his compatriot Pato. The rearguard, which was deployed at Camp Nou, was entrusted again, with Ignazio Abate and Gianluca Zambrotta flanking Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva.
THE MATCH - Milan went behind early after an unfortunate own goal by Van Bommel, but were soon level thanks to Ibrahimovic, playing against his former club for the first time. Barca didn't panic, but rather continued to play their way, and were back in front before long after a run by Xavi and a generous refereeing decision allowed Messi to make it 2-1 from the penalty spot. After the break, Boateng struck one of the goals of the season, but Xavi completed a 3-2 win from the umpteenth attack the Catalans had put together.
THE ANALYSIS - “Milan played well, but Barca played better: they are still stronger than us," so said Milan president Silvio Berlusconi at full-time. It was an analysis that few could disagree with. Milan put in a great effort at San Siro, demonstrating their ability to play more or less on a par with a team considered almost unanimously to be one of the best of all time. There was no catenaccio, as there had been in the previous meeting, but a game played face to face, with great courage. Maybe even too much ...
|LEARNING FROM THE ERRORS: COURAGE AND BALANCE
At San Siro tonight, Milan will have the chance to lay the foundations for a huge job, which must then be completed at Camp Nou next Tuesday. The example they must follow to achieve their grand objective is the one they set themselves on matchday five when Allegri, overwhelmed by criticism after the draw in the first meeting - played out 'all-Italiana' - chose instead to face Barcelona in their own territory, looking to impose his team's own game rather than play passively.
Since the match in November, however, many things have changed, primarily in terms of numbers. The absence of Thiago Silva will seriously hamper Milan's hopes, and with Nesta a long way from tip-top condition, it will be Philippe Mexes who will be asked to lead the back line. In midfield it will be tough for Allegri to leave out Nocerino once more, as he did last time against Barca, given his form in the past four months.
The dynamism of the Neapolitan has become indispensable to the Rossoneri, and he could be key in a midfield which can otherwise be easily bypassed when they don't have the ball against the Blaugrana. Xavi was decisive in the second and third goals at San Siro, attacking the space that Seedorf and Aquilani failed to cover. The use of two playmakers in the midfield three was perhaps the only error made by Allegri in November, and it would be the right idea to change the approach to the game, but not undermine the team tactically.
Taking such experiences into account would remove much of the fear. Barcelona remain a stellar force, but progression to the last four is not impossible for Milan. One thing is certain: Milan must play, they must take risks, they must have courage and self-confidence. To crown the effort, it must be Ibrahimovic's night. And Boateng's. But Allegri's too, when called upon to make the right choices, both before and during the match.
Only the brave, dear Milan ... your fear is the lifeblood of Barca.
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