UEFA Champions League 2012: AC Milan 0 v 0 Barcelona
AC Milan pulled off what is seemingly becoming the most difficult trick in international football these days when a performance dripping with maturity and experience at a throbbing San Siro saw them prevent Lionel Messi and Barcelona from troubling the scorers on their travels.
That is practically worth a Champions League medal on its own. Milan will travel to Barcelona next week, knowing that if this match at times felt like trial by carousel then they are only likely to feel dizzier by the time they get introduced to the Nou Camp again.
Chelsea, fancying a last-four dance with the winner, will still be thinking of Barca but having failed to glean that comforting away goal, nothing is guaranteed for Pep Guardiola’s men in their quest to become the first side to defend the Champions League crown since Milan in 1990.
Messi had scored 21 goals in his last nine games yet Milan managed to halt him with a mix of rough stuff and some inspired body-on-the-line interventions.
The little wizard was still fairly mesmerising but the finishing product was disappointing as Milan did sterling work to prevent Barca from adding to the 15 goals they had scored on the road in Europe this year.
Milan, oddly, may have felt it was a missed opportunity. For though they were starved of the ball for much of the 90 minutes, the two best chances of the match were arguably theirs. The awful Robinho might have been expected to miss his chance but they would have expected better from Ibrahimovic when he spurned another wonderful first-half chance.
After their triumph at Benfica on Tuesday, Chelsea could have been forgiven for believing their semi-final place is nearly secured and for thus dreaming of a clash against one of these giants who have won the trophy 11 times between them. You would not have found many in blue prepared to bet against the idea that a repeat of the infamous 2009 semi-final against Barca is on the cards.
The locals still believed, though. They may have been as obsessed with Messi here as the rest of the world is but you cannot completely derail the confidence of a club which has won this trophy seven times and the Rossoneri faithful turned up on this glorious Spring night believing that, just as their Internazionale neighbours had done in this stadium two years ago, they could derail the finest team in modern annals.
Of course, Inter had Jose Mourinho’s stifling masterplan to work with that night. Massimiliano Allegri had, sadly for him, an absence of some of his main dogs of war — the suspended Mark van Bommel, Thiago Silva, who suffered an injury on Saturday, and the long-term injury absentee Gennaro Gattuso – and he had promised that he would take the game to Barca.
Ha, easier said than done, of course, if you cannot get the ball. When the teams had played here in November, Barca’s 3-2 victory did not truly reflect their ball monopoly and mastery and while Pep Guardiola hedged his bets slightly by leaving out Cesc Fabregas and opting for the extra security of both Seydou Keita and Sergio Busquets in midfield, there was no change in the familiar Barcelona love-in with the ball.
True, they started absent mindedly, allowing Kevin Prince Boateng a free strike just outside the box which Gerard Pique blocked and then, after Ibrahimovic nodded the half-cleared ball back across the area, Robinho made a rare old hash of a volley from five yards, hooking it high and ugly.
Quickly, it was Messi time, though. First, he made Philippe Mexes look very silly down the left touchline, slotted across a wicked little cross and looked a little nonplussed when none of his teammates attacked it.
How exactly do you stop him, Milan were left asking again. Alessandro Nesta offered one way, hoiking him down around his knees just outside the box.
Massimo Ambrosini decided the best method was to plough straight through the back of him.
Then some idiot in the crowd had another idea. Shoot one of those infernal green laser lights in his eyes, just as he is about to take a free kick.
Even that didn’t work; Messi slipped as he took the kick but somehow even when he was doing his Charlie Cairoli banana skin routine, he still managed to contrive with his complete miskick to almost make a goal for Keita.
Some of Barcelona’s intricacy outside the area was breathtaking; Messi danced through with Alves, then Xavi worked a staggering one-two with Messi, and it was a wonder that Christian Abbiati was not completely hypnotised by the time he made a key save from Xavi.
Barca felt they had earned a penalty when Alexis Sanchez took a tumble, clearly touched by Abbiati as he tried to round the keeper but it looked too much like a dive for the referee’s taste.
When Barcelona control the ball and encamp outside your box for such lengthy spells, vast patience and resolve, and no little experience, is needed from the opposition.
Milan could not be faulted here, with Luca Antonini’s brilliant track back and sliding challenge to prevent Sanchez putting Barca ahead exemplifying their fortitude and the ageless Clarence Seedorf sliding through a beautiful defence-splitting ball which Ibrahimovic should have converted.
Weirdly, Milan had carved out the best two chances of the first half even while having seen only a third of possession and Iniesta quickly sought to make amends by firing just wide in the opening exchanges after the break.
The wily old Nesta was determined to stop Messi by fair means or foul but when he upended Barca’s icon, who was in full cry, with both flying arm and leg, he had to see yellow.
Bareclona substitute Tello shot into the side netting and then Ambrosini hurled his body into harm’s way as Messi’s volley seemed bound for the corner, a brilliant stop which seemed to typify Milan’s resilience. They are going to need a lot more where that came from next Tuesday.
Milan: Abbiati: Bonera, Nesta, Mexes, Antonini; Nocerino, Ambrosini, Seedorf; Boateng (Emanuelson 67); Robinho (El Shaarawi 52), Ibrahimovic. Subs: Amelia, Mesbah, Aquilani, Maxi Lopez, Yepes. Booked: Nesta, Seedorf.
Barcelona: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol; Busquets, Xavi, Keita; Alexis, Messi, Iniesta (Tello 65). Subs: Pinto, Fabregas, Thiago, Pedro, Muniesa, Montoya. Booked: Keita.
Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).