By Srinivasan Mohan
The nerves were there to be seen as the teams got into their pre-match warmups. Barcelona's star-studded team were looking to overturn a two-goal deficit conceded at the San Siro three weeks ago. The Catalans have had a dismal run in the buildup to this clash with AC Milan as they lost to Real Madrid twice in the span of five days which raised numerous questions on whether this team would under-perform without Tito Vilanova at the helm.
All such doubts disappeared into thin air as the La Liga leaders put on a mesmerizing show of possession football and teamwork spearheaded by a man, considered one of the best players on the planet, Lionel Messi.
His brace along with goals from David Villa and Jordi Alba ensured that Milan, who looked clueless during the game, would be left with their heads scratching afterwards.
Goal.com attempts to unravel just where the Rossoneri got it wrong against the Blaugrana and what this defeat means to them.
Flamini & Constant were liabilities for Milan
Milan's victory in the first leg against Barcelona was a display of sound defensive organization by the seven-time European champions. The midfield trio of Massimo Ambrosini, Riccardo Montolivo, and Sulley Muntari bullied the Catalans into conceding possession and hitting them on the counter. It came as a huge surprise when Milan gaffer Massimiliano Allegri opted to start with Mathieu Flamini on the left of a three-man midfield over Muntari in a match of such significance. The former Arsenal man has never really settled into this Rossoneri team ever since his move in 2008.
|Allegri gambled by starting Flamini over Muntari|
The 29-year old struggled to cope with the fluidity of Barcelona's midfield and failed to do the job his coach entrusted him with. Flamini's woes in the middle of the pitch piled more pressure on Ambrosini and Montolivo to keep the waves of Catalan attacks at bay being thrown upon them. Milan's left hand side was the doorway which Barcelona looked to exploit and they did that with aplomb. Messi's second goal highlighted this. Ambrosini lost possession near the halfway line and Iniesta's pass to the Argentine should have been checked by Flamini. The Frenchman's lack of awareness saw the World Player of the Year drift inside and unleash a shot that gave Christian Abbiati no chance.
Defensive performance of Milan's midfielder from the first and second legs respectively
It was after Muntari's introduction into the fray that Milan looked to press their opponents off the ball. It was bewildering to see just why Allegri opted to keep the Frenchman on the pitch after such a dismal performance until Bojan Krkic's introduction late in the game.
Kevin Constant was another who was very lucky to get away on many occasions with his shoddy defending and careless passing. He was a key factor in the Rossoneri conceding possession on the left allowing Dani Alves and Pedro a free run at the Milan defence. Alves in particular was a constant threat down the right for Barcelona. With Jordi Alba holding his runs to ensure that the Catalans have three guarding their backline, the Brazilian punted as many as 10 crosses during the game which, thankfully for Milan, did not materialise into a chance.
Constant's selection is another that warranted explanation as the Rossoneri had a natural full-back in Mattia De Sciglio on the bench who has proved that he belies his age with his composure on the ball and crossing abilities.
David Villa would have not found acres of space to take his shot had Constant showed a little more calmness in dealing with Xavi's pass. The 25-year old Guinea player dived in rashly and missed the pass completely allowing Spain's all-time leading goalscorer to help himself to a well-deserved third.
Milan missed target man Pazzini
The first leg at the San Siro was one of Giampaolo Pazzini's best ever in a Milan shirt since he made the move from cross town rivals Inter in the summer of 2012. He held the ball up well and his layoffs allowed the likes of Stephan El-Shaaraway and Kevin Prince-Boateng to make overlapping runs past the full-backs of Dani Alves and Jordi Alba.
Allegri hurt his team's chances when he opted to start with Pazzini in their 2-0 Serie A win over Genoa in the weekend before they faced Barcelona. The former Sampdoria striker suffered an injury that would rule him out of the Champions League clash. What was perplexing is why the coach didn't start with Mario Balotelli for the league game when it is known that he is cup tied in Europe.
|Milan lacked a natural frontman in Pazzini
Pazzini's absence meant that M'Baye Niang and Boateng took turns in playing the role of a 'False 9', a concept which Barcelona have perfected. With Javier Mascherano starting in place of Carles Puyol in the heart of the Catalan defence, Pazzini would have surely given him a better run for his money. The Argentine defensive midfielder was the target of the few attacks that came the Blaugrana's way and he would have breathed a sigh of relief when Niang nearly got on the end of Montolivo's glorious long ball, but fortunately the Frenchman's shot struck the post and was cleared to safety.
Boateng's evening was a dismal one as he more often than not was late in coming back into an onside position when the ball was launched towards him by the Milan midfield.
Composure on the ball missing for the Rossoneri
It is a well-documented fact that Barcelona are the masters when it comes to possession based football. Their ability to keep hold of the ball is second to none and this has translated to success on domestic and European levels for the Catalans. This however has proved to be their downfall on occasions as illustrated by the Rossoneri in the first leg. The Italians rushed their opponents into giving away the ball and hence breaking down attacks.
|Messi made Milan pay for their mistakes
However it was also seen that Milan themselves kept the ball quite well in that game at the San Siro which allowed them to build counter-attacks effectively. This feature was nowhere to be seen in the second leg as the seven-time European champions were guilty of giving away possession in key areas of the pitch. Barcelona's second and third goals were a direct result of the Diavolo's inability to pick a pass.
More positives than negatives for Milan
When the draw for the Round of 16 matches of the Champions League threw up Milan versus Barcelona, the general feeling was that this would be a cakewalk for the Blaugrana. Milan had just scraped through to the knockout phases and would surely struggle against a Barcelona side who looked unstoppable in Europe.
With a host of star names exiting the San Siro, Milan would not be able to give the same sort of fight to the Catalans like Rossoneri sides of the past. However what transpired was the stuff of dreams for Allegri's team and Italy. The Serie A, considered the best league in the world not so long ago, had shown that teams from Spain were human and could be toppled.
|Milan's mohawk brigade is the future of the club
With a young, vibrant roster unlike the Milan teams of old, the team made the Catalans fight for every inch of space in the San Siro pitch. Their heavy defeat in the second leg and subsequent exit from the competition will no doubt be a setback for this great club, but it must be remembered that it was not so long ago that the 18-time Serie A champions were prime candidates for relegation in the league. To overcome such lows and come out on top against the best team in the world with an inexperienced squad only indicates that this AC Milan team is well on its way to returning to the summit of European football.
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