Milan came into the second-leg of the Champions League semi-finals knowing that a score draw against Barcelona at the Camp Nou would see them through, something they had already achieved during the earlier group stages of the competition this season. They could also take heart with their defensive display in the first-leg, and focus on how they were going to score those priceless away goals.
For Barcelona however, nothing less than a win would do. Following their inability to find a way past Milan’s congested central defence, Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola knew that some changes had to be made, and this was clearly reflected in his starting XI.
Barcelona may have made only 2 changes in personnel from the first-leg as Isaac Cuenca was handed a surprise start replacing Alexis Sanchez and Sedyou Keita dropped for Cesc Fabregas, but these 2 changes also set in motion a raft of adjustments of other players’ positions as well as a tactical shift: a 3-3-4 formation.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta returned to their natural positions in midfield with Sergio Busquets, Guardiola reverting to the cornerstone of Barcelona’s and Spain’s recent successes. The more significant changes were made upfront: Cuenca playing on the left-wing, Dani Alves playing on the right-wing and both Fabregas and Lionel Messi playing in the middle.
Milan made only 1 change, as the previously-injured Ignazio Abate came into the starting line-up for Daniele Bonera. Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri stuck to his usual 4-3-1-2 formation that managed to keep a clean sheet in the first-leg.
The roles of Alves and Cuenca were particularly interesting, in that initially both players had zero defensive responsibilities: they simply stationed themselves high and wide. Even though Alves was probably playing as advanced as he did in the previous game, in the beginning stages of the game he didn’t track back as he usually does.
Cuenca, in only his third Champions League start, didn’t have any obvious impact on the game as he only managed 51 touches on the ball (compare that to Alves on the other wing who had 82 touches). His Barcelona teammates didn’t seem to trust the youngster and often didn’t pass the ball to him even when he was waiting on the left flank, but in truth it didn’t matter.
Guardiola’s deployment of two wide men on both flanks simply stretched Milan’s defence laterally so much more than in the first-leg, and he was probably looking to the strike pairing of Fabregas and Messi to wreck havoc through the middle now that he had 4 attackers versus 4 Milan defenders.
Yet before Phillipe Mexes’ disastrous individual error which led to Luca Antonini giving away a penalty for Messi to put his team 1-0 up, Barcelona only created one true chance when some Fabregas beautifully sent Messi through, but the Argentine shot wide.
Holding a 1-0 advantage, Barcelona seemed to relax a little, choosing to pass the ball about patiently rather than trying to score another goal. But Guardiola had predicted before the match that Milan would score, and he was proved right during the 31st minute.
Robinho, who had a terrible game in the first-leg, gave a much improved performance in this match, as he played a huge part in Milan’s only goal. Robinho looked to drop deep somewhere in between Xavi and Busquets (who had his eyes on Kevin Prince-Boateng), and it was from this position that he carved the opening for the goal. He did superbly well to draw out Javier Mascherano, as well as the attention of at least 3 other Barcelona players.
This allowed Robinho to pass to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who then slipped the ball to the onrushing Antonio Nocerino to score. Milan’s goal was not just a product of Robinho’s dribbling trickery and Mascherano’s only mistake of the two legs (by playing Nocerino onside), it was also a result of Barcelona’s 3-3-4 formation. Barcelona didn’t have anyone tracking Milan’s two shuttlers – Xavi and Iniesta hardly the most defensive-minded midfielders – and that allowed Nocerino to run untracked and equalise.
Granted, Nocerino hardly made any sort of contribution to the match besides his goal, but it highlighted to Guardiola that specific weakness in his defence. As such, when Barcelona once again took the lead through another Messi penalty after Alessandro Nesta had tugged Busquets’ shirt from a corner (forget all the post-match complaints from Allegri and Ibrahimovic, it was a definite penalty because Nesta committed the foul first), Guardiola changed the shape of his team.
Upon going 2-1 up, Barcelona shifted to a 4-4-1-1 as Cuenca switched to the right flank and Alves retreated to a more conservative right-back slot behind Cuenca. Iniesta took the left flank and Fabregas played behind Messi. It was a defensive move from Guardiola who looked to prevent Milan’s shuttlers Clarence Seedorf and Nocerino from having any further impact on the game.
In the second-half with a one-goal advantage, Barcelona again didn’t quite manage to create any clear goalscoring chances, but doubled their lead after Iniesta had pounced on a Messi’s deflected shot off Mexes. At 3-1 the game was unofficially over despite there being at least 37 minutes more to play, and Barcelona simply kept possession to run the clock down. It was only late in the game that Barcelona created clear chances for substitutes Thiago and Adriano (both of which were missed), but that was due to Milan losing their defensive shape and discipline in search of more goals.
Milan’s outstanding player was once again Massimo Ambrosini as he made more tackles (5) and more interceptions (6) than any of his teammates, but one player’s good performance is never enough to beat this Barcelona side; the whole Milan team needed to step up but ultimately failed to do so.
One of Milan’s poorer players was Seedorf. Playing as the left-sided shuttler, who wasn’t properly tracked as mentioned before, he saw plenty of the ball but couldn’t make full use of it. Seedorf often tried to pass the ball first-time – either raking diagonal balls to the right for Nocerino or through-balls down the left for Robinho or Ibrahimovic to chase – and was always unsuccessful.
Seedorf exudes class like few other players do, and his record in this competition is unrivalled as a four-time Champions League winner with three different clubs. But at 36 years of age, he cannot be expected to carry a team like he used to. He eventually made way for Alberto Aquilani in the 61st minute, but his Italian replacement never settled was contributing even less.
(Nocerino was in fact more anonymous than Seedorf, but at least he had a goal to his name as a tangible contribution to the game.)
Despite Ibrahimovic’s and Robinho’s contributions to Milan’s only goal, and the latter’s improvement from the first-leg, the two strikers still didn’t do enough. Milan could only muster a single shot on target (which was Nocerino’s goal) from a measly total of 3 shots.
In a Milan team that is so evidently dependent on Ibrahimovic as both main goalscorer and chief playmaker (a role he moved into after Alexandre Pato’s and Maxi Lopez’s introductions), Allegri needed his talisman to deliver the goods. So often accused of not producing on the big stage, Ibrahimovic only proved his critics right.
If Allegri wants his team to replicate their domestic success (Milan are the defending Italian champions and currently top the Serie A) on the European front, there must surely be a massive shake-up.
Milan will be disappointed that the 3 goals they conceded came from individual mistakes rather than any Barcelona tactical triumph (although Guardiola did get it right by increasing his side’s width), but Allegri will also know that his team were offensively inadequate. Being so heavily reliant on the dependently inconsistent Robinho and the big-game-choker Ibrahimovic only illustrates how few match-winners this Milan team possess.
Allegri can use the excuse of injury as Antonio Cassano has been out with a heart problem and Pato only lasted 13 minutes before being substituted himself (the Brazilian striker’s injury woes have been greatly discussed).
Nonetheless, Allegri’s functional 4-3-1-2 formation creates a broken team only linked by the ‘1’, where the 3 most advanced players carry a majority of the creative and goalscoring burden. Allegri has been trying to solve this problem, though it has not been enough to see his side through to the semi-finals of the Champions League, and will definitely set him thinking about his future plans.
Barcelona on the other hand, keep setting new records: they became the first side to reach five successive Champions League semi-finals and stand a chance to be the first side to successfully defend their European crown, and Messi became the youngest player to reach 50 goals in European competition.
The most frightening thing about Barcelona’s win was that they never needed to shift out of first gear in what was frankly a generally underwhelming performance by Guardiola’s team (despite his goal, Iniesta’s overall display in particular was again disappointing).
Still, his side always seem to do enough to progress, and are more than capable of stepping up when required – just look at their games against Real Madrid or Manchester United.