Barça stay top of Champions League Group H after a 1-1 draw with AC Milan in the San Siro tonight. Brazilian striker Robinho fired Milan into an early lead after a misunderstanding in Barça’s defence but Leo Messi equalized halfway through the first half. Both sides had chances to win the game in the second half but in the end they were both happy to settle for a point. With Celtic beating Ajax in tonight’s other Group H game the table after three rounds shows Barça on 7 points, Milan on 5, Celtic on 3 and Ajax on 1.
Tata Martino started with what could be considered his best XI except for the injured Jordi Alba. Valdés started in goal, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano and Adriano formed the defence, there was the classic midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta while the South American trio of Alexis, Messi and Neymar began up front. However, the team started sluggishly and failed to match Milan’s higher intensity early on.
Kaká and Robinho started in Milan’s attack and they both caused problems down Barça’s left early on, Robinho began as if he were playing in the school playground showing one delightfully audacious flick over his head to go past Alexis. The alarm bells should have been ringing in Barça’s defence when Robinho’s reverse pass set up Muntari to slip the ball under Valdés in the seventh minute. Fortunately the linesman had spotted Muntari’s offside position. However, just two minutes later Mascherano failed to find Piqué as he tried to cushion a pass to his right and Robinho broke away from Piqué’s challenge before releasing Kaká on the left and bursting into the area to receive the return and slot the ball low past Valdés.
Barça struggled to react against Milan’s heavily-manned defence. Messi was finding very little space through the middle and consequently spent long periods drifting out to the right, swapping positions with Alexis who moved to the middle, while Neymar was seeing little of the ball on the left. Little by little Busquets and Xavi started to control the midfield and the normal pattern of Barça possession in the opposition half was established. However, there was little penetration from Barça’s attack as Milan continued to defend their lead in numbers.
Barça didn’t manage a shot until the 19th minute when Messi curled a free kick into the side-netting. Fortunately for German referee Felix Brych there was no hole in the net today so there was no doubt which side of the post the ball went. A minute later Neymar and Alves combined in the area to send Messi into a good position on the right but his low cross was cut out by the diving Milan keeper Amelia.
Barça seemed to be waking up and three minutes later the scores were level. The equalizer was due in a large part to Sergi Busquets and his high pressing in the opposition half. Busquets showed both good anticipation and bravery to win a ball between two Milan players, releasing Iniesta to his left. For once Messi was in space coming in from the right and Iniesta found him with a precision pass with the outside of the boot, Messi controlled and cut inside past Mexes, resisting Constant’s late challenge and just maintaining his balance to force the ball past Amelia and inside the near post.
The same pattern continued after Messi’s goal with Barça dominating possession while Milan defended deeply. However, the danger from the Italians was always present and from a rare corner taken by Robinho Mexes sent a clear chance wide with his far-post header after Valdés had come out into no-mans land.
The chances began to arrive more frequently for Barça as Milan’s early high intensity dropped. In the 32nd minute Alves swung in a cross to the far post and Messi hooked a volley back that Amelia had to be alert to stop. Barça took the resulting corner short with the ball finally coming to Neymar who darted infield before firing just wide from 25 yards. Neymar had another try after teeing the ball up for himself but his volley went well over. Then in the 37th minute Xavi sent a superb chip for Alexis who had sprinted into an excellent position in the area but instead of going for power the Chilean side-footed his volley which gave Amelia the chance to dive to his right and save.
Milan continued to look dangerous on the break and after Iniesta lost the ball with a poor header the home side threatened with a quick move that opened space for Kaká on the left but Piqué was well placed to intercept the final ball into the area. Busquets was by far Barça’s most impressive player in the first half, setting an example with his intensity. In the 43rd minute he sent a brilliant quick pass through the middle into Messi’s feet, but Zapata was quick to make the tackle as the Argentinian swung to shoot. Then just before the break Messi sent in a cross looking for Iniesta, Zapata got his head to the ball but only cleared it as far as Neymar who sent a fierce right-foot volley across the face of the goal and wide.
Milan tried to begin the second half as they had begun the first but their initial push lasted only a minute and Barça soon appeared to be in control again. Xavi showed Barça’s growing assurance, stylishly bringing down a clearance from Valdés, and Messi threatened with a run in from the right but his cross was cleared. However, Milan’s rare counter-attacks continued to worry Barça’s defence. In the 52nd minute a swift move up the left saw the ball arrive to Muntari and he sent in a low cross to Robinho who burst free into the area but for some inexplicable reason he allowed the ball to pass between his legs and the ball ran out for a goal-kick.
Barça hit back with a good chance at the other end but after Xavi’s pass, Iniesta took the ball into the area and failed to get a decent shot allowing Amelia to save again. Iniesta then set up Messi with a back heel pass but the Argentinian’s 20-yard volley went well wide. Milan responded with another slick move forward which gave Kaká the chance to free Muntari on the left but Alves was in the right place to cut out the killer pass.
Balotelli replaced Robinho in the 64th minute but made little impression on the game. Kaká tested Valdés from 25 yards and he was then also taken off to make way for Emanuelson. Before any Barça substitutions Messi invented a superb pass to give Adriano a chance but after controlling with his right foot the Brazilian sliced his left foot shot wide as Amelia bore down on him.
Fabregas came on in place of Alexis and then Pedro replaced Neymar but the intensity of both teams dropped in the final minutes as it was clear a draw was not so bad for either team. There was still time for referee Brych to add some more poor decisions to his growing collection, mainly letting Muntari and Alves off clear yellow card offences and then near the end allowing the Milan defensive wall to come forward as Messi tried to take a free kick. There was one last scare when Busquets made his only mistake of the night to allow Muntari a run on goal but the Ghanaian midfielder couldn’t find a finish. Then in injury time Alves sent in a long shot that Amelia failed to hold but the keeper had no problem to recover.
There’s no doubt that the result is better for Barça than the performance though a draw was probably a fair result. It is always difficult playing such a defensive system when the opponent maintains its discipline as Milan did tonight. However, there were plenty of Barça players who are capable of much better. Neymar found few opportunities to run with the ball while Messi, despite the goal and the glorious pass to Adriano, had a game full of mistakes and lost possession. Iniesta has been well off his best all season and one can only hope he sorts out his new contract negotiations soon and hopefully then returns to his best. The defence also continues to have its ups and down and today the right side between Alves and Piqué looked somewhat shaky while Mascherano was guilty of a bad mistake in Milan’s goal. The main positive was Busquets who showed great fight throughout. Hopefully the rest of the team will learn from his example as we will definitely need more intensity to beat Madrid in Saturday’s Clásico.
Milan: Amelia; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; De Jong, Montolivo, Muntari; Birsa (Poli m80), Robinho (Balotelli m64), Kaká (Emanuelson m71).
Barça: Valdés 6; Alves 5.5, Piqué 5.5, Mascherano 6, Adriano 6.5; Xavi 7, Busquets 8, Iniesta 6; Alexis 6 (Fabregas m74, 6), Messi 6.5, Neymar 6 (Pedro m80, 6).
Goals: m9 Robinho 1-0, m23 Messi 1-1.
Yellow cards: m33 Alexis, m41 Montolivo, m78 Muntari, m81 Fabregas