AC Milan's Defensive Master Class Finds an Answer to Barcelona's Brilliance

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AC Milan's Defensive Master Class Finds an Answer to Barcelona's Brilliance

AC Milan parked the bus quite beautifully. They put 10 men behind the ball when Barcelona had it and drew a screen in front of their penalty box so thick fans could barely see Barca's lurid orange-and-yellow shirts from behind the goal.

Defending is an Italian art form, and this was a classic work by Massimo Allegri's team. 

It was Chelsea vs. Barcelona revisited, and it worked because Milan became just the second team this season to keep Barca at bay. Moreover, they scored twice and will thus take their Champions League last-16 tie to Camp Nou with a 2-0 advantage.

This was not what the football majority saw coming at the San Siro. Most expected Barca to put on a tiki-taka exhibition and inflict a predictable death by 1,000 passes. Milan are a faded force, they said. Milan are too brittle to cope with Barca's brilliance, they added.

They were wrong.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Andres Iniesta gets the treatment from Milan's massed ranks

Defending is football, too. Those who bemoan Milan's approach should remember that and pay tribute to a rearguard action that was both intelligently conceived and supremely executed. The fact Lionel Messi was barely noticed says everything you need to know.

Milan's formation was roughly 4-3-3 going forward and 4-5-1 in defence. Pulling that off requires your midfielders and wide players to work ferociously. The hub of Sulley Muntari, Massimo Ambrosini and Riccardo Montolivo did exactly that, ably supported by Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin Prince-Boateng for the entire 90 minutes.

Barcelona, as they always do, dominated possession (they had 73 percent of it). Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets all clocked up around 100 passes each in central areas (whoscored.com), but the telling ones were few and far between. Barca came upon Milan's wall, but couldn't find a way around it.

While Barca toiled in vein, Milan poked and prodded on the break. El Shaarawy broke away in the 15th minute and wasted a clear run on goal with a clumsy second touch. Soon after, Boateng's instinctive shot was a foot or so wide of beating Victor Valdes at the far post.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Montolivo tracks Messi

Milan's confidence was never in question. Compared to Arsenal's fragile appearance against Bayern Munich, this was the display of a team that clearly believes in itself again. Nobody can claim Milan are the force they once were, but the spirit of great teams gone before was there for all to see.

Milan went ahead in the 56th minute, and in controversial fashion. Christian Zapata appeared to handle on the edge of the Barca box, but that fact should take nothing away from Boateng's superb finish into the bottom corner. Whether the goal should have stood will be hotly debated from here until the teams reconvene in three weeks time.

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There were no such doubts around Milan's second, laid on with with a wonderful cushioned pass from El Shaarawy and finished with a flourish by Muntari—a player who found his way to the San Siro via spells at Portsmouth and SunderlandMuntari won't have had many better nights than this.

With 10 minutes to play, Milan remained vulnerable. An away goal would have tipped things in Barca's favor, but Milan—as they unfailingly had for the entire contest—held firm.

Barca had been beaten—one of the great teams knocked down by a club for whom greatness has been merely a memory of late. 

Milan were out-passed, but they weren't outplayed at the San Siro. They stalled the world's most well-oiled attacking engine and neutralized the best player on the planet while still managing to offer an attacking counter-punch that delivered two painful blows. Whether they're knockout blows or not remains to be seen.

Watching how the second leg plays out at Camp Nou, with Barcelona needing to score at least twice to reach the quarterfinals against a team who know how to stop them, is about as appetizing a sporting prospect as you can imagine.

 

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