This is a match-up a little bit more than extraordinary. With the two teams combined eighteen appearances in UEFA Champions League final and crowning eleven of those, Milan won the edge by owning seven. However, European football has surrendered to Barcelona’s convincing style in recent years.
This is a matchup with no doubt the fans who are traveling to Allianz Arena in May would have dreamt of, possibly not in March though. The two teams share some similarities despite the obvious dissimilarity.
Barcelona endured a struggling season in local competition as they battle through injuries. Despite gaining an upper hand over Real Madrid in El Classico, it would be way too optimistic to label them the favourite to win the La Liga.
AC Milan suffered from a shaky start and the inability to ride over title rivals had once prompted questions over Allegri’s, but they have stabilised via Ibrahimovic and the surprised pack Nocerino, also thanks to Juventus recent slump, and have established a four point cushion in Serie A.
Barcelona playing style is well-known by every opponents, though never able to stop them. The attack is built around the teamwork between forwards, midfields and full backs, which Ibrahimovic once struggled to adapt to. The regularity of the starting lineup definitely helps teamwork to blossom.
AC Milan builds their attack around Ibrahimovic. Allegri plays Robinho alongside the big man, and the regular striker partnership assures a consistent playing style regardless of the midfield combination, which Allegri alters depending on opponents.
Experience is crucial in these occasions. Undoubtedly Seedorf and Antonini are preferred over Emanuelsson and Mesbah. Seedorf’s anticipation had nearly earned Milan an unexpected early lead, but Robinho volleyed the ball to the fans rather than into the goal.
Guardiola was well aware of the superior work rate of Milan’s midfield. He went for a more conservative approach by playing Keita and Puyol on the left. After a slow start, Barcelona controlled the possession and began to threaten the injury-prone Mexes and Nesta. Abbiati had denied closed range efforts by Xavi and Messi, but had also caught the leg of Alexis Sanchez after a well-crafted Barcelona freekick.
Martin Jol was right: you have to be brave to award a penalty against a home team of such reputation.
Amidst the frustration at the quality of the pitch, Barcelona, unlike Arsenal, was still able to work the ball past the carefully-positioned Milan midfields, But Nesta and Antonini inspired a solid defence that kept Barcelona scoreless at half time. On the other end, Victor Valdes was far from being a comfortable spectator, and should Ibrahimovic did better with his left foot shot, Guardiola would not only be concerned but frustrated at the defenders who were caught asleep several times in the first half.
Mourinho demonstrated how to beat Barcelona when he was at Inter Milan. Allegri ensembled his theory with a very disciplined zonal defence, and his side looked more than delighted to settle for the Nou Camp trip without conceding an away goal, particularly when Robinho limped off 7 minutes into the second half.
When AC Milan looked increasingly toothless, Ambrosini was increasingly lively. With Van Bommel suspended, Allegri played the veteran Italian in weekend against Roma to build up his match condition, and he instrumented in the midfield against the Spaniard side. His excellent positioning protected the back four, and Barcelona could not regain the sharpness in the first half but only passed around outside the box.
Praises should also be focused on the 35 years old Seedorf, who had been everywhere in the night. His presence helped Milan to control the tempo of the game, which was vital to the aging defensive end, and had also minimised the impact of Van Bommel and Thiago SIlva’s absence.
With most of the second half looking flat, Mesbah ensured all the fans have something to cheer about before leaving the stadium. The left back came on as Nesta injured and continued to look incapable to play in the stage of European football. He slipped in the box and allowed Messi to control the through ball comfortably. Once again, Abbiati showed his class by parrying Messi’s low shot, but unfortunately to the path of Tello. The youngster was the first to arrive, but Antonini’s sliding block denied Tello.
It was a very entertaining 0-0 draw, and the Italians show that they have something in their blood to contain Barcelona. Although they will be satisfied with the first leg score, Allegri will be slightly frustrated with their incapability to capture on Barcelona’s lapse of concentration. This leaves them with very narrow margin of error at Nou Camp. Can they sustain that level of discipline for another 90 minutes (or possible 120) in a wider field behind 90,000 home crowd? We shall find out on Tuesday.