In shock contrast, AC Milan just showed why it is criminal to write off one the greatest sides in the competitions history. A 2-0 victory over the Catalans has left this tie wide open despite the Rossoneri having one of the worst defensive records this season. Goal.com attempts to highlight some observations from this fantastic encounter at the San Siro.
Allegri must be given due credit for his tactics
The former Cagliari coach brought the Scudetto in his very first season at the San Siro and gave Juventus a close fight in his second. But critics labelled Massimiliano Allegri's success to the talent of a few individuals on the pitch namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The 45-year old coach was seen as a person with very little tactical acumen, who relied on the 'keep calm and pass to Ibra' approach.
However, Allegri hit back at those same critics through Milan's 2-0 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League by getting his act spot on. Lining up with his customary 4-3-3, with Kevin-Prince Boateng on the right of an attack that had Giampaolo Pazzini and Stephan El-Shaarawy, Milan were set up to hit Barcelona on the counter. Boateng in particular was exemplary in keeping Jordi Alba's influence as minimal as possible.
With Nigel de Jong and Antonio Nocerino out injured, Milan seemingly lacked bite in the middle of the pitch. Massimo Ambrosini and Sulley Muntari were tasked with shackling the prolific Barcelona midfielders as much as possible. Despite Barcelona hogging most of the possession as expected, they struggled to break down a resilient Milan side who defended in two banks of four with Pazzini being the furthermost player on the pitch.
It was a sign of just how disciplined the Rossoneri were when El Shaarawy sprinted nearly the full length of the pitch to cut off a pass made to Dani Alves near the Milan 18-yard area. Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes were a defensive delight as they shut out the threat of Messi, so much that the Argentine found himself on the halfway line a lot in order to see more of the ball.
|The Milan gaffer outfoxed Barcelona to a famous win|
Barcelona fans may claim that it was a Chelsea-esque approach adopted by Milan, referring to the famous 'parking of the bus' tactic adopted by the reigning European champions in the second leg at the Camp Nou in April last year. But a closer glance will indicate that Milan had the better chances in the first half as the trio of Boateng, Pazzini and El-Shaarawy got behind the Barcelona defence on more than one occasion.
Contrary to what critics said before the game, Milan keeper Christian Abbiati was a spectator to proceedings unlike his counterpart Victor Valdes. Barcelona's coach Jordi Roura claimed that Milan had only two chances throughout the game. However the match stats totally disproves this claim as the Catalans managed only one shot on target when Andres Iniesta unleashed a fierce shot from the edge of the 18-yard area which did not work the goalkeeper.
|Team||Total Shots||On Target||Off Target||Woodwork||Blocked|
What was another feature of this young Milan side was that during the game, the Italians harried the Barcelona players off the ball, something which is drilled into every La Masia inmate. El Shaarawy, Boateng and Pazzini hunted in packs and caused the likes of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol to release the ball early and force mistakes.
Allegri could have sat back after Boateng had given Milan the lead in seemingly controversial circumstances. But he recognised the lack of pace in the centre of the Barca defence and chose to go for the kill by bringing on M'Baye Niang which meant that El Shaarawy would be playing the role of a 'False 9'.
The French youngster brought a different dimension to the game as he troubled the Barcelona defenders with his dribbling skills and pace. It was his trickery that allowed him to outwit Carles Puyol and set up El Shaarawy who in turn chipped it to the path of the advancing Muntari for Milan's second.
Mario Who? Pazzini gives a performance to remember
The buildup to the match centred around the fact that Mario Balotelli would not be able to play in this game, having being cup tied with Manchester City. The former City man was seen as someone who would have given Puyol and Pique a run for their money had he played. Giampaolo Pazzini has come in for a lot of stick from fans and critics alike ever since his move to Milan from city rivals Inter. The former Sampdoria man never really got into his groove at Diavolo and was seen as a liability in a Milan team that are in transition.
|'Il Pazzo' kept Puyol and Pique occupied|
However his performance against Barcelona was something he would cherish for a long time. The forward was instrumental in keeping Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique occupied by holding up the ball and providing layoffs for Boateng and El Shaarawy to work on. He even managed to get a shot on target through his acrobatic effort in the second half.
Off the ball, Pazzini worked his socks off for the team cause as he was a constant thorn for the Barcelona centre-halves forcing them to be dispossessed. The former Inter man was hauled off for the quicker M'Baye Niang, but Pazzini, the fans and Allegri would know that it was a performance that merited a pat on the back.
Ambrosini, Zapata and Mexes got under Barcelona's skin
Massimo Ambrosini has always been someone who shuns the limelight. The 35-year old has been at Milan for almost 18 years during which he has seen his more illustrious teammates like Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and Gennaro Gattuso earn most of the plaudits. However the former Cesena man has been one of the key reasons why Milan were so defensively sound for a better part of the decade with his simple passing and tackling abilities. Ambrosini was yet again in the mix of things against Barcelona as his coach looked up to the veteran to keep a leash on the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas.
|Ambrosini's hassled, tackled and bullied Barcelona|
Five tackles, nine interceptions and two clearances were a sign of just how much he disturbed the usually seamless passing rhythym of the Catalans. If the ball did manage to bypass Ambrosini, it was dealt with by the Milan centre-half pairing of Mexes and Zapata. The Colombian, on loan from Villarreal, gave a imposing display, keeping Lionel Messi in check, and winning his aerial duels with ease. For a team that has kept only one clean sheet in their last five games, Zapata's performance would have surely give the Milan hierarchy incentive to sign the 26-year old permanently.
Mexes, like the others in his team, raised his game to the occasion, as the Frenchman blocked everything that Barcelona threw at him. His partnership with Zapata ensured that Lionel Messi had to withdraw as further as the halfway line to see the ball frequently.
Zapata could not have done anything about the handball
Milan's opener was shrouded in doubt. A free-kick outside the Barcelona penalty area was botched up by Montolivo and El Shaarawy. The loose ball was in Montolivo's sights as he unleashed a fierce drive aimed at Valdes. The shot took a deflection and cannoned into the hands of Milan centre-half Cristian Zapata after which the ball fell to Kevin-Prince Boateng who volleyed it into the net to give his side the lead.
|Zapata provided the 'assist' for Boateng's goal|
Pique was booked for protesting at the Scottish referee regarding the nature of the goal. But a closer look at the replays will suggest that Zapata did not handle the ball deliberately as it may seem. Montolivo's shot, which was deflected, was heading towards the Colombian's face with pace. A player's first reaction when he sees the ball heading towards his face is to protect it, which is exactly what Zapata did. No doubt that Barcelona should have received a free-kick for the handball but the infringment was in no way deliberate.
A packed house at the San Siro, after ages
It is arguably one of the most iconic football arenas in the world. The passionate atmosphere inside the Giussepe Meazza is something that every player who has stepped onto the haloed turf will testify to. However this season the San Siro has seen empty seats on more than one occasion.
Milan's poor early season form coupled along with the fire sale of star names were seen as reasons for the sharp decline in ticket sales. However with the Diavolo's form improving and with the arrival of Mario Balotelli, fans had reason to be optimistic.
|Milan were cheered to victory by a full-strength San Siro|
The game against Barcelona barely had any empty seats as the Milan faithful turned up in numbers to champion their team's cause to upset Barcelona. Curva Sud was in full force as the fans raised the decibel levels inside the stadium.
With its closed structure and immaculate seating arrangements, the fans had an unimpaired view of the proceedings as their team upset the odds to defeat Barcelona 2-0, something they imagined would never happen beyond their wildest dreams. The Meazza can now expect a similar showing of strength when they take on Inter in the Milan Derby over the weekend. Considering the wavery season that Milan have had, the fans deserve to bask in the glory of this emphatic victory in the Champions League.
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