The game though started very differently. AC Milan are probably the most complete club side in Europe. They have some of the best attackers in the game – Shevchenko, Inzaghi, the young Gilardinho and Kaka. And are blessed with the best defence – Cafu, Nesta, Stam, Kaladze, and the peerless Paolo Maldini. With a midfield that can attack or defend at will. Barcelona, contrarily, rely on attack. Minus Puyol and Marquez, Barcelona’s defence is uninspiring. So, the tie of the tournament would actually favour the Milan side, because of their tactical strength.
Milan started off in attacking style, probably wanting to capitalise on Barca’s characteristic slow starts. It paid off, as Gilardino hit the post, and Puyol having to clear the ball in penalty area with his knee. Milan had a gameplan, and played it to perfection. Barcelona thrive on space, and Milan cut that out. And they cut out Barca possession time too. Gattuso was excellent, winning balls in the the midfield with remarkable ease. Milan’s left flank was very active, with Serginho making deep runs, with good assists from Seedorf.
In the first half hour, Barcelona had a couple of chances, though none was dangerous enough to cause panic at the San Siro. Eto’o was surprisingly off-colour, wasting a few good chances. Around that time, Barcelona started waking up. Iniesta was good, winning possession for his team in the midfield, however Milan ended the first half stronger, though they did not have anything on the scoresheet to show for it.
The second half saw Milan give Barca more space. Wave after wave of Barca attack was arrested by the Milan defence. And then, the inevitable happened. Barcelona strung together a hundred passes, with Ronaldinho orchestrating it, playing in the central midfield. Crosses went to either side, and finally Ronaldinho picked out Giuly, and the Frenchman found himself at the end of a well-measured chip. With Kaladze and Nesta in front, Giuly rushed past a diving Nesta and beat Dida at the near post. Barcelona were ecstatic. They had done the improbable, especially given Milan dominance in the first half.
Once in the lead, Barcelona played fantastic football, the kind that propelled them to the Spanish title last season. Milan, surprisingly, seemed dazed, and their football lacked inspiration. Ronaldinho could have doubled the lead for the visitors, but his shot hit the inside of the upright and rolled across the face of the goal. A good save from Dida off Iniesta (who orchestrated a splendid one-two with Edmilson) meant that Milan go to the Camp Nou with just the one-goal deficit. That game, a week from today, should be a definite treat, for Milan, the wounded tigers, beaten at home in a European game for the first time in so many years, will want to inflict defeat in front of 98000+ spectators. As Carlo Ancelotti said after the game, “They have done it, beating us at home. So, we should be able to do it too.”
Arsenal welcome Villareal for the last European night at Highbury. Villareal look depleted, with both their central defenders out, as also is their first-choice stopper. Arsenal look the stronger side.
Men to watch: Thierry Henry, Francesc Fabregas, Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan.
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