Milan tear up script to take two-goal lead
With nine minutes remaining substitute M'Baye Niang and El Shaarawy combined to set up Sulley Muntari (pictured) for a classy finish in last night's game at the San Siro. Photograph: Reuters
AC Milan 2 Barcelona 0:A frustrating and already damaging night for Barcelona turned into a disastrous one when Stephan El Shaarawy flicked up the ball in the final minutes and dinked a perfect assist into the path of Sulley Muntari, who guided the ball into the bottom corner of Victor Valdes’ net. It was the second shot that had hit the very same spot, after Kevin-Prince Boateng had opened the scoring after 56 minutes, and it leaves a largely impotent Barcelona with a huge task in the second leg.
It leaves Milan in a position as perfect as it appeared implausible. A huge banner had been unfurled over the south stand before this game: “We are history,” it declared. Milan may not be what they were but they deserved their 2-0 victory and, as the noise roared round San Siro, this felt like a historic night.
For the first time in 15 games Lionel Messi did not score; for the 10th time in a row Barcelona did concede – not once but twice. Those domestic warnings were real and for the Catalans, this was reminiscent of a recent history they would prefer to forget.
There were memories of Chelsea and there will be talk once again of Chelsea and of Barcelona’s Plan B. It was not just that Barcelona did not score; it was that they rarely looked like scoring. Much had been made about how Milan would stop a side that have scored 80 league goals this season and a player, Messi, who alone had scored 47 of them. Bojan Krikic had joked that the only way was for three or four Catalans to wake up with stomach ache.
Manager Massimiliano Allegri laid a more collective trap. He had warned as much, too. Before the game Allegri had said: “Barcelona have 65 per cent of the possession; we have to make sure that it is sterile possession.” His prediction was remarkably accurate and so was the set-up: just before the half-time whistle went, the possession stats showed: Milan 34 per cent, Barcelona 66 per cent. And yet Barcelona had created little. Virtually all of the opening 45 minutes were spent in the Milan half and much of it in a 20-metre strip on the edge of their area, squeezed into tight spaces.
At times Barcelona’s touch was superb but it allowed them to evade challenges and keep the ball, rather than evade opponents and create chances. As the two teams concertinaed, and Messi drifted to a territory on the right where he started his career but which he rarely occupies these days, and looked to come inside from there, and it was Dani Alves who had the task of skirting the wall of bodies. He spent the game dashing from deep, beyond the Milan defence and offering the chance of the diagonal ball behind them. Few were played and fewer still found him. But it felt as if he might be the key.
That went for both sides. Alves tried to create a space that did not really exist behind the Milan defence by running beyond them or pulling them wider – and it was a cross of his that should have drawn a penalty for Barcelona when Philippe Mexes handled.
That the referee did not see it was understandable; that the goal-line official failed to spot it was not. In making those runs, and he made them constantly, Alves departed a space that did occasionally open up for Milan. El Shaarawy, always expected to be the Italians’ greatest threat, lurked waiting to take advantage.
Milan got the first goal 10 minutes into the second half. It came from a free-kick 25 metres out. The ball was played short and, it seemed, rather loosely towards Riccardo Montolivo. He stretched to hit it and his shot flew off Jordi Alba and seemingly against the hand of Cristian Zapata, dropping for Boateng. He swung and guided the ball, left-footed, into Valdes’ bottom left corner. Barcelona reacted by replacing Cesc Fabregas with Alexis Sanchez but far from changing the pattern of the game, it merely entrenched it.
Messi and Xavi put free-kicks over the bar; Christian Abbiati hardly had to move for them; he rarely had to move all night. And then, at the other end, Muntari ended it in style.
AC MILAN: Abbiati, Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant, Ambrosini, Montolivo, Muntari, Boateng, Pazzini (Niang 75), El Shaarawy (Traore 88). Subs not used: Amelia, De Sciglio, Bojan, Cristante, Yepes. Booked: Mexes, Traore.
BARCELONA: Valdes, Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol (Mascherano 88), Jordi Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas (Sanchez 62), Pedro, Messi, Iniesta. Subs not used: Pinto, Thiago, Montoya, Song, Tello. Booked: Busquets,Pique. Attendance: 75,000 Referee: Craig Thomson (Scotland).