Tuesday September 13, 2011 (19.45 UK)
Camp Nou, Barcelona
Pedro 36, Villa 50 – Pato 1, Thiago Silva 92
Milan came away from the Camp Nou with an unlikely point after Brazilian defender Thiago Silva netted a last-gasp equaliser for the Rossoneri, in a game where the Italian side rarely looked like threatening the European champions.
Despite taking the lead through Alexandre Pato within 25 seconds, Barcelona soon imposed their game on Milan, and once Pedro equalised midway through the first-half, the Catalans dominated the remainder of the match. However, having then taken the lead early in the second half through David Villa, Pep Guardiola’s men failed to finish off the game thanks to an excellent defensive performance, and were punished by Silva’s late header past the largely un-worked Victor Valdes.
Both teams came into the came missing key players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out on a return to his former club due to an abductor muscle problem in his thigh, prompting Rossoneri Coach Massimiliano Allegri to pick Pato to lead the line with the former Real Madrid man Antonio Cassano, supported by Kevin Prince Boateng. New transfer deadline day signing from Palermo Antonio Nocerino also got the nod ahead of former Liverpool man Alberto Aquilani, to add more defensive element to the midfield. Barcelona were without former Serie A star Alexis Sanchez, and centre-back Gerard Pique, both injured, whilst club captain Carles Puyol only made the bench.
Allegri had sent his men out to utilise Pato’s pace in fast attacking moves, in the knowledge that Barcelona would, as they have statistically in every game under Guardiola, hold the majority of possession. However, the Italian Coach can not have expected it to only take 25 seconds for the Brazilian striker to penetrate a somewhat makeshift Barca defence. Providing his own through-ball between central defenders Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano, Pato sprinted at lightning speed to get on the end of it and slide the ball past Valdes.
Barcelona’s response was predictable and in the main, proven. Holding a significant amount of the possession, half chances were created in the following 20 minutes. However Milan defended resolutely and were organised extremely well to deal with the movement of the front three, and the attempted through-balls from the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez that are often key.
Allegri will have been quite content with proceedings, such was the lack of genuine danger – an 18th minute Lionel Messi free-kick striking the outside of the post was as close as the Blaugrana came, and Milan remained a danger on the break with Pato’s speed causing problems.
However, when the mistake came, Barcelona were ready to pounce. Ignazio Abate had been on top in his battle with David Villa, matching him for pace and nullifying his threat on the left of the attack, but when Messi had a run at the No 20, it proved too much, as the master dribbler wove his way through first Alessandro Nesta, and then past Abate too easily, before sliding the ball across to Pedro, who converted into an open goal from five yards.
It did not take long for the momentum to continue after the break. A careless foul by Cassano created a free-kick chance from 25 yards, which was spectacularly converted by David Villa. The Italians had been playing well defensively, but that alone was not keeping the pressure off, and relentless as it was, a team of Barcelona’s quality were still getting their just rewards.
Barca continued to pile on the pressure, and a magnificent mazy run by Messi went 10 yards into the box, before Nesta delivered a perfect saving tackle. Whenever Milan did get hold of the ball, they were unable to keep hold of it, and the absence of the strong, target-man figure of Ibrahimovic was felt defensively as much as it was in an attacking sense.
To aid this, Urby Emanuelson was brought on for Cassano in order to add an out ball. Barca replied by bringing on Puyol, moving the unconvincing Busquets away from his unfavoured central-defensive position, but although the Rossoneri made occasional jaunts into the opposition final third, they rarely threatened Barcelona’s goal, with the home side maintaining a steady stream of attacks, just falling short on the final ball.
Significantly, at 2-1 Barcelona, there always remained the hope that the Italians could steal a share of the points, and improbably Milan did just that with a 92nd minute equaliser from Thiago Silva, heading in from a corner. It was a reward for a strong defensive performance, keeping Milan in the game up until the last moment, and netting without the time for the Spaniards to respond.
It was undoubtedly a game that Barcelona deserved to win based on possession, shots on goal, and control of the game, yet this will have gone exactly to plan for Allegri, who would have known that neither his side, nor arguably any other, could have beaten Barca at their own game. They escape from their toughest game of the UEFA Champions League groups stage with a hard-fought point.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Dani Alves, Mascherano, Busquets, Abidal; Iniesta (Fabregas 38), Xavi, Keita (Puyol 67); Villa (Afellay 84), Messi, Pedro
Unused subs: Pinto, Adriano, Maxwell, Thiago
Milan (4-3-1-2): Abbiati; Abate, Nesta, Thiago Silva, Zambrotta; Seedorf, Nocerino, Van Bommel (Aquilani 77); Boateng (Ambrosini 33); Cassano (Emanuelson 61), Pato
Unused subs: Amelia, Bonera, Antonini, Yepes
Did you know…Barcelona and Milan together account for five of the last nine Champions League winners, three for La Blaugrana, and two for the Rossoneri.