Barça face an uphill struggle to stay in the 2012/13 Champions League after going down 2-0 to AC Milan at the San Siro tonight. Second half goals from Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari earned the Italians a deserved victory which leaves Barça needing to win by three goals in the second leg at Camp Nou on March 12.
As expected Barça fielded the strongest possible XI of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi and Iniesta, while Milan’s coach Massimiliano Allegri opted for Abbiati, Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant, Muntari, Ambrosini, Montolivo, Boateng, Pazzini and El Shaarawy, but instead of playing Boateng behind the front two as he had in last season’s meetings between the clubs, Boateng was used on the right of a front three with Pazzini in the middle and El-Shaarawy on the left.
However, from the beginning there was little attacking from the Milan forwards who during the first half spent more time in their own half defending than threatening Valdes’s goal. Milan sat deep and compact, working very hard to close down space, but also looking to surprise Barça on the break. At times the first half was reminiscent of the first 45 minutes in the Champions League semi two seasons ago at the Bernabeu when Mourinho set out for a 0-0 from the start.
It made the game frustrating to watch with few chances at either end. Muntari had the games first effort, sending a hopeful 30-yard volley over the bar, and Barça responded with Messi brilliantly slipping one challenge before his shot was deflected out for a corner. Piqué then had a double effort at another corner but his header hit Pazzini and then as Piqué went in for the rebound Pazzini managed to clear the danger. The game might have turned out differently when Alves’s cross clearly caught Mexes on the hand, but unfortunately, instead of a penalty, the linesman had already flagged as Pedro had strayed offside.
Milan’s first decent counter attack came in the 15th minute with Boateng flicking the ball on for El-Shaarawy to speed away from Alves. Puyol had to be quick to get across and put the ball out for a corner. Barça’s zonal defence at the corner was shown up as Boateng stood completely free in a near post zone and when El-Shaarawy’s corner found him he hooked a shot just wide of the far post.
Barça were still finding little progress going forward. Milan’s discipline was demonstrated by El-Shaarawy chasing back to block Alves’s forward run. Xavi was back after injury but he was offering few ideas from midfield, a hopeful 25-yard shot gave Abbiati a first save but without worrying the Milan keeper. Messi was coming deeper and also going to the right touchline in order to find the ball, in the 25th minute he robbed Ambrosini but before he could go anywhere Mexes had clattered him and the game’s first yellow card was shown, soon after Messi brilliantly slipped Constant by the touchline but his run at goal was blocked on the edge of the area by Mexes standing firm.
The game was becoming more and more like a chess game with Barça showing enormous patience in possession with very little penetration, and Milan showing great discipline to maintain position and close space. Milan, however, were growing in confidence as Barça looked more and more frustrated. Milan’s hard work almost pàid off in the 36th minute when Muntari caught Busquets in possession, the ball came to Boateng who sent in a dangerous cross that just evaded El-Shaarawy at the far post.
In the second half Milan came out with the intention of playing higher than in the first 45 minutes. Barça continued to seem more concerned with keeping possession than in penetrating the Milan area though Milan were quickly all back again whenever we got into the last third of the field. Messi attempts to wriggle through the middle were all coming to nothing and in the 54th minute after the Argentinian lost the ball Busquets went for the loose ball and was unfairly booked after making contact with the ball and receiving Pazzini’s late follow-through.
Two minutes later another decision went against us that had a much bigger impact. First, a free kick was awarded 30 yards out on the left after Alves brought down El-Shaarawy. Constant played the free kick square inside to Montolivo who fired in a long shot that hit Alba on the edge of the area before flying up against Zapata’s raised arm and dropping nicely for Boateng who smashed in a low shot from 16 yards that gave Valdés no chance. Zapata’s handball was clearly unintentional as the ball was moving so quickly, but his arm was raised and the change of direction of the ball gave a perfect assist for Boateng. Piqué was booked for protesting the referee Craig Thompson’s decision.
Barça were shaken and the San Siro roared Milan on. Alves had to make an important clearance to prevent Boateng’s cross from reaching El-Shaarawy as the Italians now pushed for a second. Alexis was brought on for the ineffective Fabregas but there was little change to Barça’s lack of penetration as the Italians chased and harried. Barça’s only response was a poor free kick that Messi fired way over, and things got worse soon after when Puyol had to go off for treatment after a nasty clash of heads with Pazzini. The Italian forward recovered more quickly and for a short period Barça were a man down. Pazzini almost took advantage to turn and hook a volley but Valdés was well positioned.
With Puyol back on with what looked like a kleenex tissue stuck to his forehead Barça pushed for an equalizer. Iniesta now in midfield managed to find shooting space after combining with Alba and Alexis but he was still 25 yards out and the shot went narrowly wide of the far post. Xavi then sent a free kick which went about a foot over though Abbiati had it well covered. The lack of ideas was worrying.
Then things went from bad to worse in the 81st minute after Alba sent a poor ball to Iniesta who lost possession, the ball came to Montolivo who lobbed a ball into space over Puyol’s head, the 18-year-old substitute M’Baye Niang and Puyol chased after the ball with Puyol getting in a twist, Niang squared for El-Shaarawy who lobbed the ball on to the left where Muntari was totally free, having lost Xavi, to fire in the Italians’ second.
Xavi nearly made amends a couple of minutes later with one of our few decent vertical passes of the game, sending the hard-working Pedro scurrying towards the area but Constant stayed with him all the way to block his path. Time was running out quickly and the importance of an away goal was plainly evident, but Milan were still defending courageously. Alba got forward and won a corner but from Xavi’s cross Puyol at the near post headed well wide.
The header from Puyol led to his ‘kleenex’ slipping off and with a large bloody gash on his forehead he was forced to come off with Mascherano coming on quickly as there was not the time to treat Puyol. Five minutes injury time were signalled and Piqué moved into attack in a final push for a late goal. He got his head to one cross, sending the ball towards Pedro but Mexes jumped all over the Canarian to head the ball clear and there was no way the ref was going to blow a penalty at that point.
There may have been a couple of decisions against us but that in no way takes away the fact that Milan played their game superbly and thoroughly deserved the victory. Despite having a big chunk of the possession we rarely did anything very imaginative, preferring not to take risks when the score was 0-0. We moved the ball from side to side but without the necessary speed to stretch Milan’s supposed suspect defence, and there were few forward runs from Fabregas and Xavi to try and surprise. Even on the few occasions that Alves or Alba managed to get forward there never looked like being anybody in a good position to get on the end of a cross. When we finally decided to shoot our aim was rarely good: in fact I can only recall the one soft first half effort from Xavi that needed a save. To top it all we had the same individual errors that keep costing us goals at the back. The first goal was pretty unlucky but Boateng shouldn’t have had the freedom to shoot, but the second goal started with a throw in from Alba on the left and we should never lose the ball from these situations. After that I’m not sure whether Puyol was still groggy after his painful whack on the head but he should never have lost that ball to Niang.
There’s nothing for it now. It’s back to winning the league with the visit of Sevilla on Saturday and then we will want two good results in the games with Real Madrid to get the mood right again. The week after we visit the Bernabeu we play Deportivo at home when we should be able to rest everybody to be fully prepared for a classic “remuntada” on March 12. With our defence Milan will no doubt score an away goal so I’m going for a thrilling 4-1 second leg win to take us through to the quarter-finals.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant; Montolivo, Ambrosini, Muntari; Boateng, Pazzini (Niang m75), El Shaarawy (Traoré m88).
Barça; Valdés 6; Alves 6, Piqué 6.5, Puyol 5.5 (Mascherano m88, –), Alba 5.5; Xavi 5.5, Busquets 6, Fabregas 5 (Alexis m62, 5.5); Pedro 7, Messi 6, Iniesta 6.
Goals: m56 Boateng 1-0, m81 Muntari 2-0.
Yellow cards: m25 Mexes, m54 Busquets, m57 Piqué, m91 Traoré.