By Abhishek Nair
AC Milan will make the trip to the Nou Camp to play the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against Barcelona in what is expected to be an enthralling encounter. The visitors will be full of confidence after their brilliant 2-0 victory at the San Siro that left the Catalans flabbergasted. A two goal advantage will definitely bolster Milan’s hopes of qualifying for the next round but it is still only half work done. The Rossoneri have to be wary of a backlash from this Barcelona side that is arguably having its worst spell in the past few seasons.
AC Milan were majestic at home in the first leg as they not only managed to keep the mighty Barcelona at bay but also put two goals past Victor Valdes. Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi was expected to have a massive say in this tie for obvious reasons but what was impressive about the Italians’ win was the way they isolated the diminutive Argentine to absolute perfection.
Milan defended in numbers and executed their plan well. Messi tried his best to work his way through the Milan defence but found life rather difficult as he simply could not find enough space to work his magic. The men in Red and Black left no stone unturned as they simply closed down the little master and monitored his every step. Messi is focal point of the Barcelona attack and the Rossoneri simply crowded out the Argentine as well as cut the supply lines from Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and that's where Barcelona were thwarted.
Milan seemed to have done their homework on Messi and as a matter of fact the Argentine has struggled to score against Italian opposition, failing to score from open play in 9 games against the likes of AC Milan, Inter and Udinese. Messi only managed to score against Milan from the penalty spot when he netted thrice during the 2011-12 season.
An excellent demonstration of the Italian way of defending kept arguably the best player in the world quiet as they closed down pockets of space in quick succession and the organisation to choke the industrious midfield the Catalans possess was flawless. Being the focal point of the attack, Messi almost always found himself in the 'hot-zone' and was crowded out by players within seconds of him touching the ball.
Milan did excellently well to cramp up the midfield thus keeping Messi in check. The Rossoneri deployed Massimo Ambrosini and Riccardo Montolivo deep in midfield and that was enough to keep the Argentine wizard in check throughout the game. It has been statistically proven that if Messi is quiet, Barcelona can be tamed. The Blaugrana have failed to win 4 of their last 9 games when Lionel Messi has failed to score from open play and alarmingly that is a huge number for a team of Barcelona's calibre.
Yes, the Catalans overdependence on the little master has come to light. The forward has been scoring goals for fun in the past couple of seasons and had his best season last year when he beat Gerd Muller’s record for most goals in a single calendar year. Hence, if Messi is stopped, Milan's progression will be ensured.
Barcelona's and especially Lionel Messi's strength lies in penetrating through the middle and not surprisingly that seems to be found out. Allegri's men cramped up the centre of the field and hence breaking the Rossoneri's defence seemed a daunting task. If Messi would peel off to the wider areas, that would certainly add another dimension to the Barcelona attack.
It would surprise the Milan unit as they are almost certain of Barcelona's tactics. Hence drifting to the wider areas from time to time would definitely bring something different to the table and before you know it, Messi could be wreaking havoc at the Camp Nou yet again.
Massimiliano Allegri should go to the Camp Nou with pretty much the same game plan. Milan will sit back with their healthy 2-0 lead and defend with all their might. All the Milan players will have to put in a similar shift like they did at the San Siro by defending in numbers and keeping the Barcelona midfield in check. The Catalans were running in circles in the last leg and their tiki-taka form of football was rendered useless by some effective marking and the lack of space available to thread through balls.
Messi will yet again be the focal point of the Barcelona attack and Milan will have to keep the Argentine under constant watch. The latter had a bad run of form when they faced Milan and Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey. However, world class players like Messi can’t be quiet for too long and that is what happened when Messi scored in the latest El Clasico and then came off the bench to neatly chip the ball into the back of the net against Deportivo La Coruna to confirm 3 points for Barcelona.
The diminutive forward is lethal with his deft touches and finishing skills when he is inside the 18 yard box. Milan have their task cut out for them as they will have to keep Messi away from the final third for as long as possible. The further away from the goal, the better.
Allegri’s men have done half the job well. The La Liga leaders will throw the kitchen sink at them right from the onset and sitting back and defending well is what Milan are expected to do. With hard working midfielders in the centre and lightening quick wingers, Milan could be the perfect foil to Barcelona’s possession play.
All eyes will be on Lionel Messi yet again as he was out-played in the San Siro and will look to silence the recent criticism directed at him with a stellar performance. Will Milan put in a courageous display yet again? Only time will tell but if Messi is allowed the freedom to play, expect Barcelona to go through.
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