|Nesta challenges Ronaldinho- October 20th, 2004|
The match between Barcelona and Milan at the Camp Nou on Tuesday is, for many, a foregone conclusion. The ending, for many, is inexorably determined--but still some persist in the Milan camp.
"We have to stop Barcelona's brain," said an unusually philosophical Kevin-Prince Boateng. "Xavi and Iniesta are the right and left side of the brain."
Boateng characterized his opponents eloquently. That's what this Barcelona side does. It combines both sides of the brain--mathematical precision with poetic flourish. But, terrifyingly, it seems Barcelona do that throughout the team.
Competing with them is difficult, even impossible. For Milan to do it without their main mercurial talent, their quintessential right-brainer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, seems improbable. The Swede was ruled out for the game due to an injury sustained in training, meaning that Milan will probably play with one striker in Alexandre Pato.
Tuesday's game brings back many memories. The 1994 European Cup Final in which Milan dismantled Johann Cruyff's Barcelona side 4-0 is always discussed when these two sides play each other. Also, Milan's controversial semi-final elimination at the hands of Barcelona in 2006, when a perfectly good Andriy Shevchenko goal was disallowed, will undoubtedly do the rounds. However, a game between the two sides that took place many years after the 1994 triumph and many months before the 2006 disappointment remains nestled in my memory.
The date was October 20th 2004, and Frank Rijkaard returned to the San Siro as coach of Barcelona. He was up against his former club, coached by his former Milan teammate, Carlo Ancelotti. Like Tuesday's encounter, it was also a group game and came early on in the Champions League campaign.
Milan lined up with Dida, Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi, and Shevchenko. Barcelona, meanwhile, fielded Victor Valdes, Rafael Marques, Carles Puyol, Juliano Belletti, Oleguer, Giovanni von Bronckhorst, Deco, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Henrik Larsson, and Samuel Eto'o.
Barcelona had a burgeoning reputation at the time, and many fancied them to go all the way in Europe (they did the season following). Milan had won the Champions League in 2003, and only a dramatically absurd collapse against Deportivo La Coruna had prevented them from going past the quarter-final stage the previous season. The encounter, then, was between two teams primed for success.
The match was engrossing in the initial exchanges. Early in the first half, Shevchenko forced an outstanding save from Valdes from a tough angle, and a few minutes later Larsson hit the crossbar with only Dida to beat.
The decisive moment came in the 31st minute. Marcos Cafu found space down the flank, and crossed for Shevchenko, who won the aerial battle against the Barcelona defence and headed home.
Milan may have had the better of Barcelona in the first half, but they had to withstand relentless pressure in the second. Eventually, to the relief of the home support, they secured the three points.
It wasn't a vintage Milan performance, but it remains a cherished memory of mine. Here's hoping that Ignazio Abate and Pato do tomorrow what Cafu and Shevchenko did almost seven years ago.