Saturday 24 March 2012

A Vital Win, A Vital Loss

Zlatan Ibrahimovic guides Milan to another win
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's transcendent skill to decide today's game against Roma almost succeeded in making me forget that Milan have to play, on somewhat equal terms, Barcelona on Wednesday.  The goal was astonishingly skillful, and another finger in the eye of the peculiarly committed anti-Ibra brigade.  Milan were 1-0 down before Ibra scored a penalty and the winner. Milan are now seven points ahead of Juventus, who play Inter tomorrow.

Yet, it was when the Milan-Roma game was young, only at nine minutes, still emerging and taking shape, that Milan fans witnessed an injury to Thiago Silva, an injury that can potentially have a devastating impact on their Champions League campaign.  Coach Massimiliano Allegri has to take a generous portion of the blame here.  Silva was risked in a Coppa Italia semi-final mid-week clash against Juventus.  It was all in vain as well as Milan were eliminated, but, more crucially, Silva was injured.  Today he went through a tentative warm-up before the game.  Ten minutes in, his pre-game diffidence turned into total despair.  He was taken off, and Allegri has confirmed he will not be available for Barcelona.

"I took a risk with Silva, and we paid dearly for it." said Allegri. "He has a problem with his hip flexor, and he will certainly not play on Wednesday."

Philippe Mexes has been unwilling to concede even an inch, and Daniele Bonera is probably playing some of his best football, so Milan can be optimistic.  Further, Alessandro Nesta, who contained Lionel Messi so well during the Champions League group stage clash at the Camp Nou, also returns.  However, Silva's injury, at such a crucial point of the season, redounds to the bafflement at the medical attention Milan players are receiving from the much vaunted Milan Lab.  As Gazzetta reported, Milan have had the most injuries this season (Juventus the least), and were it not for a capable squad, they would have disintegrated a long time ago.

Those discussions, however, will not be the prevalent ones on Wednesday.  There is the small matter of Lionel Messi, and defying the smothering, near unanimous expectation of a Barcelona win.

Forza Milan!

La Gazzetta dello Sport reveals how many matches each club's players have missed through injury this season

Saturday 17 March 2012

L'Incubo Comes Real for Italy

Not ideal: Breitner draws Milan against Barcelona
And then it happened.

At the start of this week, the worst case scenario for Italy in Europe was Napoli squandering their two goal advantage against Chelsea, Inter unable to overcome an eminently achievable goal of eliminating Marseille, and Udinese ultimately succumbing to a 2-0 defeat inflicted by AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League.  It all happened--and then some.

On Thursday night, Italy had a sole representative in the quarter-final of European competition left and that was Milan, the club that has often carried Italy in Europe in the past.  A season that could have seen Italy gather valuable coefficient points now hinges on Milan.

"This has been the trend for many years," mused Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani. "France and Portugal will surpass us soon in the rankings."  The this he refers to darkly is Italy's unfailing ability to find the ceiling fan and noose around this time in Europe.

Perhaps Galliani a bit too pessimistic, but as I have written before what his melancholy predicts is not implausible.  Portugal have now two teams left in European competition: Sporting Lisbon and Benfica.  The former have a great opportunity to go deep in the Europa League as they have been handed Metalist Kharkiv as quarter-final opponents, while the latter have to overcome Chelsea in the Champions League.  Portugal may well amass more points  than Italy this season.

It all now depends on Milan.  But even then there is a slight problem.  The Rossoneri have come up against that team from Catalonia.  Milan are not only up against Pep Guardiola and his team, but also a sizeable portion of public opinion, manufactured fans, and an overwhelming feeling of inevitability that the Allianz Arena should, by divine right, by the right of what is right, host Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Final.

"For me, the winner of this competition must stop Messi and his friends," said former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid legend Paul Breitner before he would draw out the names for the Champions League quarter-finals. Obvious, yes. Ominous, too.

Each time the bearded German opened the tiny plastic ball to reveal a team, my heart drummed.  There were seven possible teams for Milan.  After drawing Barcelona in the group stage, and Arsenal in the second round, surely Milan deserved better.  The uncaring probability of things didn't think so.  Clinically, it only left one option behind, and for Milan it was possibly the worst.

The incubo, or the nightmare, had thrown up a phantasmagoria all week: Brandao's off-the-back goal in the dying seconds against Inter, Bransilav Ivanovic's thumping shot in the roof of the net against Napoli, and Erik Falkenburg's improbable goal against Udinese.  Breitner contributed another traumatic image.

Gazzetta issues the rallying cry
"I am looking at the positives," said Allegri in the aftermath of the draw.  "We beat Barcelona, and then it will be easier to get into the Final."  Fair enough, with all due respect to Chelsea and Benfica.   Milan's pink paper La Gazzetto dello Sport reinforced the coach with a daring title of "Milan, niente paura," or "Milan, no fear."  If ever there was a time for bravado, false or genuine, this is it.

Milan fans would never enjoy taking the same route as their despised rivals Inter to success.  However, at this stage they wouldn't mind if events conspired similarly to 2010: a volcanic eruption in Iceland that caused Barca to arrive at the San Siro tired and lose 3-1, a 1-0 loss at the Camp Nou that was characterized by a monumental hang-on job, and of course the sprinkler treatment.

From potential conflagration to being drenched in victory's water, that Inter-Barcelona tie proved that the elements can indeed conspire in a Barcelona loss.  But Milan can also take heart from their own exploits at the Camp Nou this season when they came home with a 2-2 draw during the group stage.  Even allowing for the fact that they were second best for most of the game, that score would nonetheless suit them immensely in the quarter-final.  Even the 3-2 loss in the return showed that Milan can indeed hurt Barcelona.

Of course, the key for Milan is to make sure Thiago Silva, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are healthy for the encounter.  Mark van Bommel is instrumental to a game like this, but he is suspended for the first leg, depleting an already vulnerable midfield.  However, if Milan can keep a clean sheet at home in the first-leg, there is a decent chance for them to progress.

Indeed, Silvio Berlusconi is immodestly confident: "We are not afraid of Barcelona or Messi, and we know how to handle them."

Many have said it.  Few have done it.  Milan must give it their entirety on March 28th and April 3rd--for themselves and Italy.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Milan's and Ibra's Timely Triumph

Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimović roars at and through the competition
Palermo 0-4 Milan.  It was the kind of game that you wouldn't really expect after a week of acrimony and apologies that reminded us how fragile the diplomatic equilibrium is in Serie A between Italy's two biggest clubs, Juventus and Milan.

Sulley Ali Muntari's goal that was not given--sorry, that was taken away after being given--last weekend against Juventus urged Milan's no. 2 Adriano Galliani to leave the San Siro because of high blood pressure.  Not before, however, him making sure that his precarious systolic and diastolic balance was upset completely.

"Look what happens when you cry," he is reported to have said to Juventus coach Antonio Conte in the tunnel. "It clearly works."

"What a pulpit--you people are the mafia of football," was Conte's response.

Galliani was referring to Juventus's sustained self-victimization before the game last weekend, which everyone is guilty of is in Serie A at one point or the other. Conte was referring to the perceived influence Milan have had in Italian football, the kind of influence that Juventus have also had, and the kind that Juventus have exerted shamefully in the past (Calciopoli and all that).  The notorious, erstwhile duopoly of Italian football arguing over injustices is not a very edifying moment, and not a moment that the Catanias and the Chievos should have any time for.

Comically, the 1-1 draw last weekend, during which Milan outplayed Juventus for most of the time, sobered Conte.  After realizing how undeserved the draw was (even considering Alessandro Matri's goal that was perhaps disallowed correctly), the Juventus coach spoke of a need for sensibility all around when talking about officiating.  It was a bit like being lectured on safe environmental practices by a suit at British Petroleum.

However, mainly for the better of public appearances, Galliani and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli made up over the phone.

Against such a backdrop, Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri deemed the trip to Palermo yesterday as being critical to the season.  It was a game that would show what Milan are made of.  The sense of injustice in the Milan camp was feverish--and poor Palermo were incinerated.

I haven't seen Milan play that kind of football since 2005.  Palermo were marginalized to the point of being spectators.  The Milan defence and midfield got to every ball first, and Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimović did the rest.  Ibra's hat-trick in the space of fourteen devastating minutes underlined Milan's rage and the Swede's centrality to this Rossoneri side.  Really, it seems pathological to deny how vital Ibra is to this team, and there are many out there who think he is a liability due to his disciplinary problems.  But surely he more than makes up for it, and perhaps we can see the time he spends suspended as well-deserved rest.

Returning after serving a harsh three-match ban, Ibrahimović  went to work, dismantling Palermo.  The hat-trick came from both feet, and was a display of precision and understated power.  He was unplayable, unstoppable, and unforgiving.

"I still think about that Juventus game," he said after the match.  Clearly.  Like a Bollywood hero driven by revenge and a soundtrack, Ibra smashed his way through Palermo, flaying pink flamingos at the Renzo Barbera, which is not the happiest hunting ground for Milan.

Chievo celebrate as Juventus deflate
Robinho was exquisite too, providing assists to Ibra, but it was the giant's night.  He is now tied with Antonio Di Natale at the top of the scoring table on 18 goals.  And he shows no signs of stopping.

Of course, sometimes perceived injustice can be the best spur.  There is no conspiracy against anyone, and I say that even after the lurid scandal of 2006.  However, what Conte has lost in the last week is his ability to moralize, and his team have lost the ability to win.

 Almost three hours after Milan's proclamations of power, Juventus dropped two valuable points against Chievo in a 1-1 draw. At home.  They have picked up just seven points out of the last fifteen on offer.  And they have all sorts of tough games ahead, while Milan have a much easier schedule.  The Bianconeri are undefeated this season, but they have drawn 12 games, one less than the amount they have won.

"People forget where we came from," said Conte after the draw yesterday.  "Last summer there was talk of us ending up sixth, and now look where we are."

That won't cut it with the jeering Juventus fans, who whistled the team after the game yesterday.  As for  Milan fans, they can thank Boukary Dramè for the late drama yesterday.  At 1-0 Juventus looked like they would see a win through to the end, but then Dramè shot past Gianluigi Buffon, and Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci did the rest by deflecting the ball in the goal.

Milan are now three points ahead of Juventus, who have a game in hand against Bologna.  After a week of talking about officials and phantom goals, it was heartening to be reminded that the players can still boss this Scudetto showdown.  And there is no bigger boss than Ibra.