Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Champions League – Milan 1, Barcelona 1: Contained

Like a nuclear meltdown or an oil spill, Barcelona wreaks havoc on their opponents and scores goals unchecked. They came into this match unbeaten this season in both the Champions League and La Liga. Meanwhile, Milan more resembled the delicate ecosystem at risk in such a disaster with our injuries and other problems. But with the surprising tactics of the much maligned Allegri and the contribution of every single player on the pitch, Milan were able to contain the Barca disaster and take home a very valuable point. Contained.

Keep Calm and Always Fight... the Curva set the perfect tone

The first surprise was the starting lineups. Balotelli was on the bench, not fully fit, and Allegri went with an attacking trio of Birsa, Robinho, and Kaká in a 4-3-3. Allegri clearly realized he needed more width vs. Barcelona, and it was also a way to maximize the strengths of the limited players he had at his disposal. And he was spot on. Kaká and Birsa terrorized the flanks, with the former’s quality also providing some great attacking opportunities and the latter forced to do more defensive work on the night. The down side of this was that when Balotelli eventually came on, he played deeper and his strengths were almost neutralized by both the defensive tactics and the supporting players in this formation. So while it was the right formation for this game, and both Tassotti and Galliani mentioned that they may be going back to the 4-3-3, it begs the question whether or not Balotelli will be able to play as effectively, especially if Allegri pushes him back out wide in future game like he has in most of the games so far this season before tonight. However, in this game, though, the formation was just what was needed.

But that was just the first surprise. The next surprise was that Muntari drew first blood, with a goal in the 7th minute. But I guess because the “blood” was a goal, not a person, it was rightfully called offside. However it was clear from the beginning that Milan wanted to score and were looking for the win, so eventually that was bound to pay off. In the 9th minute, Robinho made it happen, with a great one-two with Kaká. 1-0 Milan. The goal was massive, for both Milan’s confidence and to send the message to Barca that this was a team to contend with.

The Brazilian duo made it all happen

And just as it was Milan who took control of the match with the first goal, it was Milan who made the errors that led to the Barcelona equalizer. Constant had gone too far forward, and once Milan lost the ball in midfield, there was simply no stopping Messi in the 23rd, 1-1 all. Which should not be held against Amelia, who had a fantastic night. And if you follow the blog consistently, you’ll know I’ve criticized him heavily for his goals conceded, so this compliment does not come lightly.

In all, the team played incredibly defensively. I have always maintained that when quality is lacking on defense, perseverance makes up for a lot. And many of our players who would have normally played more attacking football sacrificed scoring opportunities to attach themselves to their man. In fact, Constant dropped back more and played more defensively in the second half after allowing too many opportunities in the first half. And Abate barely made it forward at all, because Birsa was covering the flank with such tenacity. To drive home the point of how ferocious our players were defensively, in the final minute, Messi had not just one, not two, but three Milan players marking him.

Abate was a beast

I’ve read comments from people saying various players were missing, but I was noticing just how many players were just constantly defending. Like how Abate basically neutralized Neymar. His other contributions were minimal, but that alone was huge for the result. Kaká played very well defensively, he ran so much. And when his man slipped past him in the 70’, Allegri immediately subbed him off for some fresh legs in the form of Urby to limit any more risks.

A few highlights, Birsa got a little swat at Neymar’s face in the 47th, something many of us have wanted to do. And Muntari was definitely not planning to make Busquets his BFF. In fact, if Neymar gets the BestSupporting Actress, Busquets totally wins the Best Actress award for his pathetic acting. Montolivo got his token yellow card in the 41st, whereas Muntari, who once again was lucky not to see at least a 2nd yellow, was cautioned in the 78th. Amazingly, that is only Muntari’s second card this season, with two yellows and no reds.

When I grow up, I wanna be like Birsa so I can slap Neymar, too.

An honorable mention goes out to my commentators. I laughed so hard I almost fell off the couch when they said that Milan was “playing to their strengths: organized and disciplined.” You couldn’t make it more obvious that you’ve not watched Milan this year. But then again, these are the same commentators who said Zapata was Mexican and at one point called us Juventus, so it shouldn’t surprise.

But it is true that the team were organized and disciplined on the night. And much of the credit for that goes to Allegri. I’ll never understand how a man who just a few weeks ago said Ajax were a superior team and applauded our boys for not taking a single shot in 45 minutes could also be Barcelona’s tactical kryptonite. But two home games in a row, now, he got the tactics and the lineups just right, neutralizing a team who is used to dominating their opponents.

This 11 shut down the unstoppable circus... as a team, not individuals. Well done.

And speaking of dominating, Barcelona dominated possession with 64%, and they also took 15 shots, with 9 of those shots on goal. Milan’s chances were more meager, with only 6 shots and 3 on goal. And yet we still got the point. That doesn’t mean that Barcelona necessarily played badly, but rather that Milan have got their number. The annoying defense, interrupting plays and looking to take the ball at every single pass… it all proved to take Barcelona off of their game and contain them.

While you could single out a player like Kaká, who played 71 minutes and played like a sublime beast, his quality showing, this was a team effort. Just like last season, the players all worked together to make it all happen. So maybe it was the green of our Champions League training jerseys, but once again, Milan served to be Barcelona’s kryptonite. It was inspiring to watch, even more so after all of the struggles of late. I was so proud of our boys, and it truly was a draw that felt like a win. Milan got the point, and Barcelona were contained. Well done, ragazzi.

This post inspired by Muse’s “Absolution” album

Our next match is
Parma vs. Milan
Sunday, October 27 • 15:00 CET (10am EDT*)
*note European Daylight Savings Time ends

Don’t forget to listen to the latest Podcast
with our very own Francesco