By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
For spells, they were a match for the much-vaunted world’s best. But AC Milan just couldn’t stay with Barcelona for the full 90 minutes. Every time they came up with an answer, Pep Guardiola’s side simply asked a tougher question in response; it was always going to be the Catalans’ night. But there was one plus point in the defeat, and one that the Rossoneri must take notes from if they are to have a chance of competing for the moniker of eight-time European champions come May.
Champions League nights are different these days for Milan. As soon as they won the Scudetto last summer, the talk was of repeating the feat on the continent. There’s an expectation about the club simply because of their history. There is always the feeling in Italy that if certain things fall into place at the right time, Milan could succeed. So when they go onto the European stage wearing the tricolore on their chests, there is always that extra pressure, that extra hope.
But it is Barcelona who European opponents really fear, and champions though they may be in their own backyard, Milan still have a lot of catching up to do. They might not have shown a fearful side, but they were very much second best. Too many Milanisti left the Meazza last night talking about if-onlys and near-misses, when the 3-3 draw they could well have snatched would have hidden many of their flaws.
|MATCH FACTS | Milan 2-3 Barcelona
When the group stage draw was made in August, this writer argued that the two clashes with Barcelona would be a good thing, especially in their timing. The September clash would tell them what their starting point was – how far away they were, with the return last night showing what progress they’d made and what they still needed to do. A second draw may have kidded some into believing they were on a par. The truth is that they remain a long way short.
In crucial areas of the field they had no answer. Massimiliano Allegri’s deployment of Clarence Seedorf and Gianluca Zambrotta, with their combined age of 68, down Milan’s left seemed an ill-advised decision from the start. Asked to patrol Barca’s right – Lionel Messi’s right – they were always going to be chasing shadows. By the time the Argentine had made his way infield, he had invariably built up a head of steam with little real opposition.
And in the centre there were not enough nimble legs either. Alessandro Nesta was blowing hard with his hands on his hips long before half-time. It seemed only a matter of minutes before the rest of his body caught up with the beating his lungs were taking, and his withdrawal on the hour was no surprise. Ahead of him, Mark van Bommel was barely any more mobile.
It has often been repeated that this Milan side is too old. Last year’s Scudetto was meant to be a shot across the bow, but if they have learned anything from these two games against Barca it’s that they need greater mobility to keep with European football at its fastest. What is good enough to batter Palermo is not necessarily good enough to even live with Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
On the plus side, when Van Bommel turned the ball into his own net in the opening 15 minutes last night, Milan could have folded. Instead their response was to hit straight back. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already roasted Carles Puyol in the build-up to a chance that Robinho must still be wondering how he skied into the Curva Nord from six yards out. A minute later he made a great angled run and coolly slotted home left-footed.
Barca kept coming, and got their reward with a controversial penalty as Xavi went down under the lightest of touches from Alberto Aquilani. Messi’s twice-taken kick resulted in the net bulging on both occasions. Again Milan refused to fold, Kevin Prince Boateng firing a rasping drive inside Victor Valdes’ near post after a magnificent flick had taken him past Eric Abidal.
|MILAN'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE CAMPAIGN
|September 13 - Barcelona (away)
September 28 - Viktoria Plzen (home)
October 19 - BATE Borisov (home)
November 1 - BATE Borisov (away)
November 23 - Barcelona (home)
December 6 - Viktoria Plzen (away)
February 14-22 - Round of 16, first leg
March 6-14 - Round of 16, second leg
After a dead rubber trip to the Czech Republic to visit Viktoria Plzen next month, Milan have a transfer window between them and their date with one of seven group winners in February’s first knockout round. During those 30 days of trading they must make whatever additions to their squad they deem necessary to ensure they are competitive right down to the business end of this season’s Champions League.
Had they snatched that third equaliser, there may have been many telling you that the Via Turati rooftop garden was rosy. But defeat puts a new light on matters. And if it nudges them into the right kind of action come January, it may well prove to be one of the Rossoneri’s best results of the season.