Thursday 21 February 2013

Milan Stagger Barcelona

Goalscorers:Kevin-Prince Boateng (left) & Sulley Ali Muntari of Milan
It is the toadying that you can't stand the most.  And it's everywhere.

The build-up to Milan's Champions League clash against Barcelona was dominated by the plasticity that normally accompanies anything Barcelona are a part of these days.  Sometimes it seems commentators, in particular, have a clause in their contract that demands from them the most hideous eye-batting flattery for Barcelona possible.  You can't blame Barcelona that much--they do what they do extremely well.  

But at times you could be understood for mistaking Milan for Millwall the way previews were training their adulation on Barca ahead of the first leg of the last-sixteen tie.   Even after the game, the bizarre condescension persisted. In the broadcast I was watching the commentator spluttered after Milan's superbly executed win over Barcelona that it is a "big night for Italian football."

Just to be sure that we're all on the same page: Milan have won the European Cup seven times, three more times than Barcelona, and twice in the last ten years.  Also, Milan flattened Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Final to win one of their seven European Cups.  Yes, the Catalonians have been unremittingly dominant recently, but history, except for the Barca fans minted in the last seven years, didn't start in 2006.

I say all of this because it is the right time to say it.  Milan have beaten Barcelona 2-0 at the San Siro after a performance that was a glorious inverse of the narrative leading up to this encounter; just as they were omitted from serious consideration, Milan omitted Barcelona from any as well.

Milan knew they couldn't match Barcelona man for man, so they decided to build a grid-work of organization, precision, and guile.  It was a design carried out to perfection by willing minds and legs, and not one man appeared to be the weak-link.  Too many times in their last few encounters against Barcelona, Milan have looked squashed against their goal trying to withstand pressure--but not today.  

Today, their opponents' passes were cut off almost at the point of conception.  Milan players interspersed themselves amongst the Barcelona ones, rather than wait for them to come at them--it was fluid, and without panic. 

"We were very disciplined and managed to close every angle down, so they couldn't get through us," said Sulley Ali Muntari, who scored Milan's second goal of the night. "Against [Barcelona], you can't lose concentration."

Coach Massimiliano Allegri's young team is still attempting to cohere after more than a dozen departures this past summer, including those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva.  Today's performance confirmed not a proficiency yet, but the necessary syntax to make it happen in the very near future.

Stephan El Sharaawy, at the age of 20, played with remarkable precocity.  Apart from a clumsy touch in a crucial breakway in the first half, he remained a special dynamic focal point, and his volleyed pass to Muntari for the second goal was calibrated perfectly.  

Irrepressible: Riccardo Montolivo
Kevin-Prince Boateng, who scored Milan's first after the ball had deflected off of Cristian Zapata, finally looked eager to rise to the occasion.  Captain Massimo Ambrosini, as he has frequently in his career, enlivened the midfield constantly, while striker Giampaolo Pazzini threw himself everywhere, memorably making a desperate clearance in his penalty-box.

Yet, amongst all this fluency, the most distinguished minutes of play belonged to Milan's creative man in the middle, Riccardo Montolivo, the heartbeat of this embryonic team.  He not only took the free-kick that led to the opening goal, and he not only unhinged Barcelona resistance by starting the move that led to the second, he also remained Milan's chief legislator of space in the middle of the field.  He did what he pleased at times, making room--and taking it from Barcelona--around him.

"It went well," enthused Montolivo.  "We were prepared for them to keep possession, and therefore we shut down the spaces to make it sterile."

Sterile was perhaps the most apt word to describe it.  It was castrating for Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez to be nowhere near a threatening position the whole game.  Many possible explanations will be posited about Barcelona's ineptitude, including ones that don't have anything directly to do with them, but it will prove hard to justify this as anything other than a sound defeat.

"It was a bad result, and we can't make excuses about the pitch or the referee," conceded Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, after murmurs of the poor condition of the San Siro pitch surfaced.

Barcelona's bad result, and Milan's triumphant one.  It was not only that Barcelona performed abjectly, it was that Milan drove them to capitulation, and to one man it was not all that surprising.

"It was a victory I believed in, and no one else did," said Allegri in a swipe at the media so dismissive of Milan's chances.  "My players deserve this result."

And to think, the cup-tied Mario Balotelli wasn't even playing.