A team starting Sulley Muntari has no business beating Barcelona.
But AC Milan – its traveling roster deprived of Mathieu Flamini and Antonio Nocerino, its summer exodus including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta – did just that, posting a 2-0 first leg win over Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16.
Kevin Constant started at left back. Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes formed the central defensive hub. Djimi Traore won the 2005 Champions League.
When a ragtag group of players, bled of any financially valuable members by an owner distracted by economic downturns, beats probably the best team on earth, attention turns to the coach.
"We wont spit on this result when we are facing the best team in the world," M'Baye Niang told beIN Sport.
Up until this point, Massimiliano Allegri was best known for two things: his ability to smile diplomatically when Silvio Berlusconi insulted him publicly, and his meme-sparking inclination to shout "dai dai dai" from the sidelines.
Reports in Italy suggested that, assuming he didn't win the Champions League, Milan would dispose of him this summer, with AS Roma the likely destination. Now he's beaten Barcelona.
"Allegri was the best player for us tonight," Muntari said. "He laid out the perfect plan and instilled the discipline."
Milan submitted a composed, assured performance reminiscent of Chelsea last year or Inter in 2010. Barca will always carry possession, and it did in this match, hoarding 73 percent of it. Allegri just made sure it came in sterile areas. Of Barcelona's 762 passes, only 11 touches came in Milan's box.
Sergio Stanco called Barcelona the "prophets of champagne soccer." Milan bottled up its area, leaving all the bubbles and fizz to die a stale death in harmless possession. So it goes.
Milan actually out shot Barcelona eight to seven. Only Xavi managed to put one on target for the Catalans on Wednesday, Christian Abbati making the one save demanded of him.
Before the match, Berlusconi, his preferred medium for tactical advice to his coach coming through the press, suggested man marking Lionel Messi. "To slow down Messi you don’t need man marking, you need a rifle," Juventus coach Antonio Conte said. Allegri found a slightly less violent solution. Messi, for only the second time this year, didn't put a shot on target. He coughed up the ball five times.
Allegri's personnel decisions came off as well. Kevin-Prince Boateng replaced the teenaged Niang on the right, and responded with the opening goal after a quick-fire double deflection (at least one of which involved an arm) presented the chance. Boateng also helped out defensively, making four interceptions and two tackles. Milan attacked down the right 44 percent of the time, then looked to hit cross-field balls to Stephan El Shaarawy.
Targeting Jordi Alba paid off on the second goal. Massimo Ambrosini, who led the game with nine interceptions and five tackles, stole the ball back after an Alba throw-in. Riccardo Montolivo looped the ball up into the gap behind the left back. Substitute Niang pushed the ball over to El Shaarawy, who popped it up into the air. Muntari's white cleat blurred as he hit a one-time volley to score.
"It's the most important goal of my career," Muntari told Sky. Robinho, cup-tied Mario Balotelli and friends bounced around in delight behind Balotelli's grinning gal pal.
Milan started the Serie A season with seven points from eight games. Allegri has taken the team from outside the bottom three only on goal difference to tied for third. And, now, he's overseen a two-goal win over Barcelona.
"There are no excuses, not the pitch nor the referee," Gerard Piqué said.
This isn't Arrigo Sacchi's Milan. This isn't one of Europe's elite, destined to invoke coos and eye-glints from the nostalgic old-timers. This team – unlike Barca – won't change how others approach the sport. But, under Allegri, Milan is becoming a competent outfit.
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