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None of the touted game-changers prevailed at San Siro, as the Italians were boosted by big performances from some unsung stars to keep out the European champions

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By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor

No Mark van Bommel, no Alexandre Pato, no Mathieu Flamini, no Ignazio Abate, no Antonio Cassano, no Alexander Merkel and, most notably of all, no Thiago Silva.

AC Milan should have had no chance against Barcelona on Wednesday night taking into account their long list of unavailable first-team squad members, but some heroic performances from unlikely sources ensured that they head to Camp Nou on Tuesday for the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie still in with a chance of upsetting the odds.

While Robinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Urby Emanuelson failed Milan in front of goal at crucial times, they hung on for a 0-0 draw thanks to a patched-up back line which was punctuated with surprisingly good displays from Daniele Bonera and particularly Luca Antonini, while Massimo Ambrosini did a magnificent job of screening the back four to ensure that Lionel Messi never once got up a real head of steam.

MATCH FACTS | Milan 0-0 Barcelona

 Shots
 On Target
 Possession
 Territory
 Corners
 Bookings
MILAN
4
2
38%
37%
0
3
BARCELONA
15
5
62%
63%
2
1
There were also some superb performances from more likely stars such as the returning Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf, but it was the combined efforts of the less reliable performers that really stood out for the Rossoneri.

After Robinho’s calamitous miss in the third minute, Barcelona went straight back up the pitch, and Messi’s low cross from the byeline almost caught Milan out. It looked like it could be a long evening. But the home side were a match for the European champions for most of the first half.

Alexis Sanchez should have been awarded a penalty when he was brought down by Christian Abbiati, but Ibrahimovic missed a chance at the other end that he would have buried 95 times out of 100. Kevin-Prince Boateng fired over from the edge of the box, while Seedorf couldn’t quite get on top of the ball when attempting a volley from Antonio Nocerino’s cross.

Barca went into the break having enjoyed over 65 per cent possession, but they hadn’t had it all their own way. When Alexis broke through a rare high defensive line, Antonini followed him all the way before producing a sensational last-ditch tackle reminiscent of Franco Baresi. It was the moment of the half.

After the break, Milan gave up little space. Andres Iniesta was unusually quiet, with Bonera closing down his space well. Ambrosini continued to take the pressure off his defenders with instinctive tackles and intelligent pressing. And Antonini’s evening only got better, closing off the Barcelona right wing to any kind of penetrating attack.

MILAN'S UNLIKELY HEROES

LUCA ANTONINI
8.0 Did well to follow the ball in from Messi’s shot, and was able to deny Alves after Abbiati spilt possession. Trumped that with a magnificent tackle on Sanchez as the Chilean broke into the area, before producing another superb challenge on Tello in the dying moments.
MASSIMO AMBROSINI
7.5 Given the job of detailing Messi when he dropped away from the forward line, and did it well throughout. With the amount of tackles he made successfully, it was no surprise one or two would be mistimed.
DANIELE BONERA
7.0 Made a couple of vital tackles, particularly one on Messi in the second half, and used his experience to phase out a number of dangerous attacks.
Emanuelson failed to control the ball in the right-hand channel as he attacked empty space within seconds of coming on, leaving the Rossoneri defence with still no buffer, but they weren’t to need it, such was their excellence on the night.

As things appeared a little more desperate near the end, the ball flashed across goal to substitute Cristian Tello, who had a great sight of goal. But Antonini was equal to it once more, throwing himself at the youngster’s feet to keep Barca scoreless.

The full-back had been a hero. In fact, most of the team had. With injuries having left them appearing extremely vulnerable to the Blaugrana’s attacking weapons, it was nothing less than remarkable that they kept a clean sheet. We’ll never know what would have transpired had Robinho done the simple thing of knocking the ball into the back of the net in the opening minutes, but one can’t help but wonder if Milan could have taken a lead to Catalunya.

Club president Silvio Berlusconi wasn’t suitably convinced when he spoke to Sky Italia after the match, saying Milan’s performance was “so-so”, while claiming: “Ultimately, we are proud to get a result against a great Barcelona side that did not prevail.”

His CEO Adriano Galliani found more positives in the display. “It is a good result. We had so many players out injured, and so many others who only returned from injury tonight,” said the director general. And he was right.

Yes, if any one of the chances from Robinho, Ibrahimovic or Emanuelson had gone in, Milan might have taken more than a clean sheet with them into the second leg, but the extraordinary efforts of the likes of Antonini, Ambrosini and Bonera must not be taken for granted.

It was 29 games, and two-and-a-half years, since Barca had last failed to score in a Champions League game, and nobody would have put their money on Milan stopping that run reaching 30. Instead, their unlikely heroes have put them in with a chance of reaching the semi-final.

The Rossoneri remain big underdogs, with a score draw at Camp Nou still difficult to attain, but it’s a much more positive scenario than it could have been.

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