Massimiliano Allegri was right. The Italian manager set up his team in the most Italian of fashions. No, not catennacio, but the reason behind it. Defensive solidity, mixed with attacking efficiency. Through it, AC Milan was able to perform on Barcelona, to use the most overused of clichés, the Italian job.
It was Allegri who had been displeased in the pre-match press conference. He had stated how angry he was that for the past 10 days leading up to his side’s Round of 16 first leg Champions League home tie, all the talk was of how once again, Milan would be victims of the all conquering Catalans. Certainly, there was something almost bitter about how he stated that come match day, the rules would not change and the game would, like any other game, still start at 0-0.
But rather than look like a man with a rant, he actually was a man with a plan. Come the final whistle, the truth of his words rang loud in the ears of those who had heard, but had doubted.
There was reason to doubt. Milan was not the Milan of old, the Milan of old men. This new Milan had youngsters. Typified by Stephan El Sharaawy, the man known as il faraone –The Pharaoh, has been on a quest as seemingly impossible as that of the ancient pyramid making Egyptians. Considered fifth choice striker last season, it is he who, with the departure of the other strikers, and injuries to others, that has risen to the occasion most often.
Ultimately, Milan’s line up was always destined to feature the young Italian of Egyptian descent, even though he had missed Milan’s previous league match through injury. Also of certainty was that January recruit Mario Balotelli would not feature due to already having played for Manchester City earlier on in the season in this same competition.
Of surprise however was the inclusion of Sulley Muntari. The Ghanaian has had a wretched time with injuries, missing half the season and only getting to play this year. Of more surprise was that it was he, rather than Riccardo Montolivo, who had the freedom to venture further forward from midfield.
The dynamism of Montolivo certainly showed on the night. Referred to by Cesare Prandelli, his national team manager as il finto trequartista – the false playmaker, it is his ability to switch between deep lying midfield and attacking midfield that was of major importance to Milan. His diagonal balls over the top cause problems for Barcelona’s defence all night.
Against Barcelona, the job description was one; sit alongside the experienced club captain, Massimo Ambrosini and congest a midfield area so that not only Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas would not have freedom, but also the roaming Lionel Messi would not have the clarity to destroy from deep.
This was complimented by the hard running of Kevin Prince Boateng, on the right, and El Shaarawy on the left. The pair stopped Jordi Alba and Dani Alves respectively from proceeding to create chances from out wide.
By forming a wall in front of the defence, Milan restricted mighty Barca to a mere one shot on target. They also negated Messi’s influence and ensured that Iniesta was not on one of those croqueta filled fun days.
Such was the work done by Milan as a whole that the defensive pairing of Phillipe Mexes and Cristian Zapata looked reliable. Prone to mistakes of comical proportions, the two had enough confidence from their teammates that nothing would go wrong that they eventually decided that their usual shifts of making sure something does go wrong did not happen.
Their first goal, rather fortunate for it was the left hand of Zapata that cushioned Montolivo’s shot nicely into the path of Boateng , was thoroughly deserved. The second by Muntari followed a flowing move that involved Montolivo, substitute M’Baye Niang and El Shaarawy teeing up the Ghanaian for a stupendous finish.
It is this goal that may prove decisive. It means that Barca have to score at least three times if they are to have any chance of progressing. Milan’s trip to the Emirates last season at this same stage will not be lost on them, and they will draw inspiration from how easily Arsenal managed to pick apart the Rossoneri as they raced to a 3-0 lead by half time. There is also the matter of a UEFA Cup Quarter final in 1996 that Milan won 2-0 in the home leg, but would then go on to lose 3-0 to Bordeaux in France, thus getting knocked out in the process. If the same score line were to occur, it would be enough for Barca.
However, if il diavolo goes through, it will be because like other teams to have eliminated the Blaugrana in the Champions League, the crucial part of the job was done at home. Mourinho’s Inter may have held out and defended for 90 minutes at the Camp Nou, but that was only because the cushion that allowed them to do so had been established at the San Siro. Last season, Chelsea knocked out Barca quite crucially via the help of Didier Drogba’s goal at Stamford Bridge. Even recounting the pre-Guardiola era sees examples of Paul Scholes deciding the semi final of 2008 at Old Trafford, and Mourinho’s Chelsea doing the job over them at Stamford Bridge in the 2004-2005 season.
There is also the superstitious angle. Milan will be wearing their white kit as they will be away from home in the second leg. It is a Milan tradition to consider the white kit ‘lucky.’ Of the seven European Cups that Milan has won, 6 have been while wearing white in the final. Only one out of the three finals that they wore their home strip did they emerge victorious. That tradition was also tested last season, with Milan wearing white in their home tie against Barcelona. That however was against a more feared Barca, and with the game ending in a goalless draw, then to an extent, it did work.
Certainly, all pointers seem to indicate that Milan will go through. Underestimating Barcelona is done with the most cautious of perils, but now it seems that even they have probably given themselves too much to do going into the second leg.
If Milan goes through, then we will continue seeing images of Balotelli in celebratory mood. Seeing Balotelli dancing with the fans in the stands can only be a good thing for Milan, for it means that they are still dancing with the stars in Europe’s most coveted cup competition.