Milan optimism after stopping Barcelona scoring against foreign opposition for first time since October 2009
As Massimiliano Allegri pointed out after watching his side hold Barcelona to a goalless draw on Wednesday night, two of the possible results at the Camp Nou next week will see Milan through to the semi-finals of the Champions League. A win would be good, but a draw with goals would do just fine.
"That's a very important fact," the 44-year-old manager said. "I've complimented the boys on their very big performance, but some of them weren't in the best physical condition. They'll be better in time for the second leg. This was a fair result and it will do a lot for their self-confidence and a belief in their ability to take the next step."
A burst of high-summer weather in Lombardy did not produce the classic suggested by the two clubs' glittering records in the competition. Statistics confirmed the lack of spectacle: Milan completed only two-thirds of their passes, Barcelona an unimaginably paltry, by their unique standards, 82%.
But it says everything about Barcelona's current standing that the red and black half of Milan was not just happy but overjoyed with the 0-0, the first time in almost two and a half years – since another goalless draw away to Rubin Kazan in October 2009 – that Barcelona had failed to score in a match against foreign opposition. Silvio Berlusconi expressed mild reservations, less than thrilled to see his players commanding only 35% of the possession, but Allegri's side are a long way from the de luxe units that cruised to seven European Cup victories thanks to such superstars as José Altafini, Gianni Rivera, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Andriy Shevchenko and Kaká. Confronting the world and European club champions, however, their defenders and midfielders performed with infinite dedication to the task of halting Lionel Messi's scoring streak, thus giving themselves a chance in Tuesday's return leg.
As a result, Chelsea are left in suspense over whom they will be meeting if they reach the semi-final. Like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the west London team can be confident of their progress to the last four, even though the front page of a Lisbon sports paper proclaimed "It's Not Over!" on the morning after Salomon Kalou's goal had defeated Benfica in the Stadium of Light.
No doubt Roberto Di Matteo would be happier to see Milan upset the form book next week, given that Allegri's squad showed themselves capable of losing 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium earlier this month – albeit having strolled to a 4-0 victory in the first leg – and that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose goals have been largely responsible for taking the side to a four-point lead over Juventus at the top of Serie A, remains an enigma in European competition.
On Wednesday he, along with Robinho, missed the early chances that would have changed the complexion of the tie, and apart from one glorious turn past Gerard Piqué on the left the Swede gave little material assistance to his team-mates. The young Stephan El-Shaarawy, introduced for Robinho early in the second half, showed promise, but Milan are unlikely to get Alexandre Pato, currently receiving treatment for a long-term thigh strain at a clinic in the United States, back in time for the trip to the Catalan capital.
As so often in recent years, the pitch at San Siro did little to assist a display of artistic football. "It's like a potato field," a grumpy Dani Alves declared, having failed to make much headway down flanks that were relaid before Arsenal's visit earlier this month. He and his colleagues pointed out that the grass had not been watered, hindering their attempts to pass their way through the Milan defence, and the club lodged an official complaint to the Uefa match delegate.
The question of the pitch also arose during a brief conversation after the game between Pep Guardiola and Silvio Berlusconi, Milan's owner, although the Barcelona manager later acknowledged that, since its expansion for the 1990 World Cup, the layout of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza presents special problems in terms of allowing sunlight to reach the grass.
"It's not in a good state," Guardiola said, "but it's up to us to overcome such difficulties. It will certainly be better in Barcelona next week, and with a bit more speed in our game perhaps we can make a difference. I must say that I'd have been happy if you'd told me at the beginning of the season that we'd have come away from Milan with a 0-0 and ready to play at home for a place in the semi-final. I know Milan are dangerous. They're a great team, full of experience, but we know that our task is simple: we have to win, that's all."
Like the gentleman he is, Guardiola made no great complaint about the refusal of the referee, Jonas Eriksson of Sweden, to award a penalty to Alexis Sánchez, who had fallen somewhat theatrically after tripping over the arm of the diving Christian Abbiati, Milan's goalkeeper, in the 16th minute.
The condition of the pitch, and of the stadium as a whole, is a warning to clubs contemplating joint ownership. When two clubs share a stadium, particularly when the freehold is owned by the municipality, neither takes real responsibility for its upkeep. The ground is not a true home, and therefore its facilities are not maintained with genuine pride. Which, when we are speaking of one of the great cathedrals of world football, is a considerable pity.