AC Milan have endured a turbulent couple of years owing to their financial difficulties that has forced them to offload their best players and operate under a restricted budget. They had been written off in the Serie A but a string of good results over the past couple of months have seen them climb to third in the league. The Rossoneri have now threaded beyond the realms of possibility in football by beating the mighty Barcelona 2-0 at the San Siro in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie.
Due credit must be given to their coach Massimilano Allegri who has endured his fair share of criticism for the club’s deteriorating state of affairs over the past year. Early performances in this campaign suggested that Milan may not secure a Champions League spot come the end of the season which would be an absolute travesty considering the club’s phenomenal success in the prestigious tournament in years gone by. However, recent results have prompted Juventus boss Antonio Conte to suggest that they could still challenge for the title as they sit 11 points behind the Bianconeri who lead the pack.
They've had to make sacrifices
Allegri delivered the Scudetto in his first season in charge of Milan three years ago but the cynics attributed the title-winning campaign to stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva rather than giving the Italian tactician the recognition he deserved. However, the former Cagliari manager has steered the ship through rough water since then and their resurgence is testament to his worth at the club.
The most impressive feature of Milan’s unlikely triumph over Barcelona was the fact that they did not ‘park the bus’ or ride their luck. They didn’t sit on the edge of their own penalty area and throw their bodies around to get blocks in while the visitors peppered their goal with relentless attempts. On the contrary, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the Catalans failed to create a single clear-cut opportunity throughout the course of the game.
In fact, Barcelona were restricted to a solitary shot on target despite securing 73% of possession on the night. Basically, there was a lot of ‘tiki-tiki’ but no ‘taka’. Lionel Messi put on his worst performance in a Barcelona shirt in years but it was more a case of Milan expertly containing their illustrious opponents than the visitors failing to show up. The fact that the Milanese club are nowhere near their strongest proves that grit and discipline can go a long way in humbling even the likes of Barcelona.
Messi went missing
Massive figureheads at the club like Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Clarence Seedorf were all offloaded prior to the commencement of this season while the irrepressible Pirlo was allowed to leave for free the previous year. That’s an incredible pool of talent and experience drained clean in one swift motion. To put things into perspective, that’s a combination of 13 Champions League winners’ medals taken out of the squad.
In addition to losing that wealth of experience, the Milanese club also had to bring in funds by parting with their most prized assets. Ibrahimovic, Silva, Antonio Cassano and Alexandre Pato were among those sacrificed. The reduced side that faced Barcelona was further stripped to its bare bones owing to injuries to key players like Robinho, Nocerino and Nigel De Jong while their latest cult hero, Mario Balotelli was cup-tied because of his appearances for Manchester City during the group stages of the tournament.
The mention of Massimo Ambrosini and Sulley Muntari featuring in midfield alongside Riccardo Montolivo didn’t exactly fill the San Siro faithful with confidence prior to kick-off. The aging Ambrosini was expected to struggle against the mobility of the Barcelona midfield while Muntari wasn’t deemed disciplined enough to feature in this encounter. As it turned out, the duo played exceptionally well as Ambrosini put in a gallant performance in a defense midfield role where his experience really came to the fore. Muntari played his part perfectly and even grabbed the second goal while Montolivo was calmness personified in possession as he made good use of the ball more often than not.
Ambrosini was in a different class
Their victory just goes to show that despite all the hardships they’ve had to overcome as a club, desire and hard work on the field will always bear fruit. Arsenal could learn a thing or two from the Italians. They faced a similarly ‘impossible’ task when they faced Bayern Munich the previous night but their approach and the eventual result couldn’t have been more disparate from that of Milan’s.
While the Gunners entered their tie with the kind of naivety they have come to be associated with, Milan epitomized the tactical discipline the Italians pride themselves on. The London-based club failed to show the kind of character and resolve that’s necessary when facing a significantly stronger opponent. Arsene Wenger may moan and groan about players leaving the club and ruining his plans but he only needs to look over at the crisis surrounding Allegri to put his own in perspective.
Milan’s victory sets up the second leg of the tie perfectly. Barcelona will be desperate to escape elimination at such an early stage of the competition and will no doubt start the game with a fierce determination. If Milan can replicate their performance that rejuvenated their fans who have been despondent for most of the season, there’s every chance that their vigour and resilience will earn them a place in the quarter-finals and complete what would be a truly unprecedented result.
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