“We won’t play like Fort Apache, that’s not our style.”
You can always rely on Milan managing director Adriano Galliani for a good quote and like any of them you can take this one with a pinch of salt.
The club that gave us Baresi, Costacurta, Maldini and Nesta definitely knows how to shut up shop.
Yet after outplaying Barcelona in the first leg Milan know they have an enormous psychological advantage tonight as well as a two-goal lead. If they can score then Barcelona need to score four to go through, and the La Liga giants cannot be at all confident about keeping a clean sheet.
Statistics often lie but before their 2-0 win against Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday Barcelona had conceded 21 goals in 13 games without a single clean sheet, and Deportivo are anchored at the foot of the table without an away win all season. To find a similar Barcelona run you have to go back over 50 years.
Saying Barcelona don’t know how to defend is a little like saying Michelangelo couldn’t draw women: it’s true, but like Michelangelo they make up for it in other ways.
One way is obviously Leo Messi, who was rested on Saturday, along with five others, but who still managed to score two minutes from time after coming on as a substitute.
Scoring in 17 consecutive league games is an all-time record according to his club, beating a Polish record set in 1938.
True or not it’s a staggering performance, but the worry for Barcelona is that the same unstoppable player was a peripheral figure in the San Siro last month. Milan controlled the zones between the lines so effectively that Messi was frequently to be seen isolated on the right of the attack. And when he sought to get away from his marker, Philippe Mexes, his link-ups with Daniel Alves — usually so effective — were disrupted by the energy and movement of Stephan El Shaarawy on Milan’s left.
Out-thought tactically by Milan, who were superbly disciplined in midfield, Barcelona managed just one shot on target — from 25 yards. The Rossoneri all excelled, but the outstanding performance was probably from the veteran Massimo Ambrosini, playing in what you might call an advanced holding role.
Barcelona passed the ball as ever, but with almost no penetration. Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas frequently seemed to be trying to occupy the same space.
Shocked by their subsequent cup defeat against Real Madrid, Barcelona’s message to their fans has been “keep the faith”.
Coming from behind is not something the present generation are used to any more than Messi is used to managing one shot on target in three matches — the two against Madrid as well as the first leg against Milan.
Emotionally this is a huge night for Camp Nou. Four teams have recovered from a two-goal deficit in the Champions League — Barcelona are one of them — but always with the help of an away goal in the first leg. There’s also the emotional pressure of Tito Vilanova’s illness.
From New York, where’s he’s receiving treatment for cancer, the manager has been in constant communication with his deputy Jordi Roura by mobile phone, Skype and video conferences with the team. It is a tribute to Barcelona’s humanity as a club that they have not even contemplated changing Vilanova’s status, but his illness and his absence are clearly having an effect on the team as well as on Roura, who is a friend as well as a colleague.
“For us a good season is Tito making a complete recovery” said Barca president Sandro Rosell last week. Yet maybe the team can turn the emotion to their advantage, as they did when their full-back Eric Abidal was ill with cancer two years ago.
Moreover, Milan are not without their own mental demons, above all the memory of another Spanish night when a 4-1 first leg advantage was blown away inside 45 minutes. Only goalkeeper Christian Abbiati remains of that team — he was on the bench back in 2004 — but that 4-0 defeat in Coruna remains at the back of every Milanista mind.
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