Allegri's great escape piles pressure on Inter
When AC Milan defeated Barcelona 2-0 at the San Siro on Wednesday, few supporters were more delighted than Antonio Negri. A Communist, lecturer, former convict for bank robbery and terrorism and rabid Milanista, he once attacked the viewpoint that catenaccio was a "reactionary" style of play, comparing it to class struggle and the earthy, tough qualities of the working-class Italian.
The Rossoneri's triumph wasn't quite reminiscent of the days of Nereo Rocco, but they undoubtedly gamed Barcelona. Milan certainly outplayed them but in an unconventional manner, refusing to contest their dominance of possession and instead soundly defeating them in every other area of play.
Nobody saw it coming, not least for all the struggles Milan have had this season, but it is a victory that will do much to boost the image of Serie A in Europe. The new TV deal for the Premier League, the Bundesliga's expertise in commercialism and the Spanish top two's ability to seemingly print money had left the impression that Italy was in terminal decline. It may have had the two names of a classic European tie, but this was arguably more a victory of the have-nots over the haves than anything Stoke City ever achieved.
Until then, it seemed that Massimiliano Allegri was going to be the fall guy for Milan's woes in the context of a wider Italian problem. It was not purely that fate was conspiring against him, however. He was fortunate that when Serie A kicked off after the break, many Milanistas were already prepared to write the season off. After all, finishing third with a limited team and another year under him wasn't viewed as a disaster.
The bigger picture wasn't as grim as once it was. Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy were showing great promise, and the squad wasn't that far away from completing what was always going to be a painful rebuilding project. It was nothing like the disaster Inter were likely to face. And this was all right.
By late October, however, Milan played each game as though surprised to discover another team on the pitch. Daniele Bonera was a starting centre-back as Allegri insisted no new defenders were necessary. They were 15th in the league -- 11 points behind Inter and 15 behind leaders Juventus. This was far from all right.
In a nutshell, what followed sums up Allegri's remarkable ability to save his own skin and produce something exceptional just as criticism begins to mount -- sort of a managerial equivalent of Steven Gerrard. Popular opinion was always going to count double this season because it is that time again: a Silvio Berlusconi election year. But four months is a long time in football and politics. Opinions surrounding the coach returned to indifference just in time to save him as Berlusconi's poll ratings surged. When they were really struggling, he was miles behind in the election. Now he is within touching distance, the sort of distance that firing an unpopular coach could have done much to address. With Allegri more or less safe, he pulled out one of the habitual aces up his sleeve that have punctuated his otherwise mediocre tenure and ultimately kept him in his job. With an utter rabble of a team, depleted through injuries and ineligibilities and with a back four that sounded like a substitutes' bench, Milan somehow pulled off an incredible victory, not just beating Barcelona but outplaying them. It came out of nowhere, as if Arsenal had given Bayern a sound beating the night before without half of their first team. Even a BBC economics expert was moved to venture his own conspiracy theory.
Not only that, but Milan are now in a fine position to progress. They will welcome back Antonio Nocerino and Mathieu Flamini for the return leg, ideal players for executing a stifling defensive performance. They will also play a team that failed to score an away goal and have not kept a clean sheet for 10 games. They also have Bonera back, which may be judged as a misfortune given Allegri's bizarre adoration for him, but you can't have it all.
While Barcelona prepare for the second leg by struggling in a crowded fixture list with their archrival, Milan will do the same but in a more leisurely fashion. Inter were last seen losing 4-1 to Fiorentina, being serenaded by the Viola fans with a rousing chorus of "the ball's that yellow thing." At the same time that their most recent player sold, Philippe Coutinho, was giving a fine performance in helping Liverpool demolish Swansea City, replacement Mateo Kovacic was being hauled off at halftime.
Yet the bigger blow to Inter had come in the game before, as Diego Milito was ruled out for the rest of the season. Even if they can frustrate Milan by putting in a classic, irritatingly solid performance, they will not have anyone to scuff in a hopeful ball at the other end. If Allegri did not secure his job against Barcelona, he can certainly do so against Inter. Even counting the Benitez reign, it is hard to think of any time in the past few years that the Nerazzurri have been such a sitting duck. Fate has smiled upon Allegri again, and his counterpart Andrea Stramaccioni is now the one likely to find himself out of a job at the end of the derby. Supporters might still be reluctant to give him full credit for the Barcelona victory -- the Catalans did put in a dreadful performance -- but it can't be denied that Milan were superb in the most difficult of circumstances.
But rather than considering him a champion of the underdogs, Allegri might instead see himself to have more in common with Berlusconi -- written off, doomed and condemned more than anyone can remember but still calling the shots regardless.