Champions League: Why AC Milan Beating Barcelona Was No Fluke
Milan's 2-0 win over Barcelona on Wednesday night was a shock.
It was a result that will have surprised many across the football world—fans and pundits alike—who doubted Milan had it in them to beat Messi and Co.
But to suggest that it was a fluke or that they somehow didn't deserve it would be doing a great disservice to Milan, and to pay unnecessary credit to a Barcelona side who, on the night, didn't do nearly enough to win the game.
Milan won not just because they defended well—which they did—but also because they attacked equally well, scored when it mattered and were quite clearly the better team over the 90 minutes.
Let's start with a couple of the complaints.
First, the argument that's always trotted out when Barcelona fail to win in Europe: the opposition were playing anti-football.
As is so often the case when Barcelona are beaten (we saw it with Celtic earlier in the season), people miss the point and complain about having to watch a side play so defensively. If that's what it takes to win a game, then you just have to get on with it.
Barcelona might have dominated possession (65 percent), but they were far from effective with the ball and failed to really create any clear-cut chances. Messi had as quiet a game as you're likely to see from him in the Champions League. As this pitch map indicates, he was forced far deeper than he usually needs to be in order to get the ball—barely making it into the area once.
Les ballons touchés par Messi face à l'AC Milan. twitpic.com/c5g0av— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 20, 2013
Milan's defensive organisation and pressing also meant that players such as Iniesta and Xavi, ordinarily so dangerous and creative, were restricted for the most part to long-range efforts.
Essentially, they had enough of the ball to be a threat, but lacked the cutting edge on the night to make the breakthrough.
For Milan, the midfield played a big part in how they approached the game defensively.
Instead of adopting the "park the bus" approach like Chelsea (as some have already suggested they did), they chose to limit space in their own half—not just by getting men behind the ball, but by pressing Barcelona when they were in possession and denying them the time to move the ball around and look for an opening. That's a job which Muntari carried out particularly well.
Sure, it's a defensive strategy, but the difference between standing off and letting Barca play and closing them down quickly was crucial to Milan's victory.
While Barcelona were laboured in attack, Milan on the other hand were far less wasteful in their play. They took only three or four passes when moving the ball forward on swift counter attacks which quickly put the Barcelona defence under pressure.
Boateng was so important for his side tonight, both in the way he linked up play and created opportunities for the players around him.
El Shaarawy had a disappointing first half but had far more of an impact after the break, and his deft assist for the second goal gave this tie a whole new dimension altogether.
Pazzini held the ball up well and gave his midfield time to get up in support and Niang gave them an alternative coming off the bench—something Sanchez failed to provide for Barcelona.
At the end of the day, you can say all you want about how defensive Milan were, but when it came down to it, they were more effective and more incisive than Barcelona in attack. That's what won them the game.
Of course, many will point to the "controversial" first goal and argue that Zapata's handball in the run up to Boateng's shot means it should never have stood.
Handball? Deliberate handball?
If you think that, you must have been watching a different game from me.
As the shot comes in, it cannons off the back of a Barcelona defender, and ricochets up against the arm of Zapata, clearly as he is moving his arms away from the path of the ball.
In football, the laws clearly state that for a handball to be given, it has to be deliberate. While the ball does strike the Colombian defender on the arm, to say it's deliberate displays a woeful lack of an understanding of how the game is played—and of basic physics.
Either that or it's just another case of people making excuses for Barcelona, when in reality, they just weren't good enough to win the game.
As a contest, overall it wasn't particularly complicated.
Barcelona set out to attack and to dominate possession, but they lacked the verve and flair which usually comes so easily to them. It was relatively easy for Massimo Allegri's side to prevent them from scoring.
Milan set out to defend, yes, but they also set out to counter well, and to move the ball forward quickly when they got an opportunity.
They played to their strengths, but for some reason in the game today that's so often perceived—and therefore dismissed—as being 'anti-football', a term supposedly intended to imply that there is one correct way to play the game.
Not that Milan will be particularly concerned with any of this of course.
They go into the second leg full of confidence that they can see off Barcelona and progress to the quarterfinals.
After all, they beat them tonight.
And it was no fluke.
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