Nailed to the Milan mast
A few weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of AC Milan's deft display of passing and tactical nous at Old Trafford, I used my weekly space to extol the many virtues of the rossoneri. Some of you wrote in, calling me everything from a closet Milan supporter to an apparatchik of Silvio Berlusconi himself.
Trust me when I tell you that while I can frequently be spotted wearing a red scarf in the darkest days of winter, it has significantly more to do with an allegiance to a team in the north of Scotland, rather than the north of Italy.
A sea of red and black jubilation was visible at the San Siro on Wednesday night. Milan took a massive step towards the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, by foiling Inter, their city foes, yet again. Frustrating the poor nerazzuri seems to have become their favourite pastime: Milan do it better than anyone. Not since March 2002 (nine derbies ago) have Inter triumphed in the 'derby della Madonnina.'
The fact is, anyone charged with the task of trying to provide fair and reasonable analysis of Europe's leading clubs, must give Milan their due. Carlo Ancelotti has a first eleven devoid of weaknesses, and a contingent of reserves possessing levels of skill and resourcefulness that would make them regulars elsewhere.
Even on their poorer days, the rossoneri tend to shine. Wednesday evening's display was by no means their most eye-catching performance of the season, but it illustrated why Milan are such difficult opponents. The gift of winning important matches against top-tier sides, while making it look entirely economical is one not bestowed on many at this level. Milan know how to record victory on their own terms.
Outplayed they certainly were at times in the first half against plucky Inter. But this attacking shortage merely served to place the emphasis on the aptitude of the Milan goalkeeper, back four and defensive midfield area.
On three separate occasions, Dida, an oft underrated keeper made splendid saves to deny Sinisa Mihajlovic, Juan Veron and Julio Cruz. Rino Gattuso's value to Ancelotti's side was never more evident than when the combative midfielder thwarted a promising Inter raid with an acrobatic clearance.
Cafu and Paolo Maldini, who qualify as senior football citizens, were immense in the full back positions. Alessandro Nesta experienced a couple of twitchy moments in the early stages, perhaps hampered by the ankle injury which forced him to drop out of the Italy side for the World Cup qualifier last week.
But the bald Dutchman by Nesta's side was a colossus on the night. The sheer physical presence of Jaap Stam has intimidated many an attacker in the past. In this case, his victim was Obafemi Martins, who ran tirelessly, but seldom to any effect.
Milan's advantage at the interval courtesy of Stam's glancing header following a beautifully flighted Andrea Pirlo free-kick flattered them somewhat, given that genuine goalbound threats from the rossoneri had been scarce. I can't accept the argument (which I've heard in the last few hours) that Inter were streets ahead of Milan before the break. Certainly there were worrying moments for the Milan rearguard, but did the concession of a goal ever look likely when Inter were dominating?
Pirlo, architect of the first goal as described above, was the man behind the second headed strike of the night thanks to another of his peerless free-kick deliveries from the right. Inter must be kicking themselves for failing to see his potential, back in the days when he used to wear the black and blue stripes.
It's no exaggeration to state that the twenty-five-year-old playmaker has matured into one of the slickest passers in world football, and one of the most accurate dead-ball exponents. Oh, and we shouldn't forget that he's no slouch when it comes to reading the game from his deep-lying position. Pirlo is a modern day Graeme Souness, without the thuggish tendencies.
So much went right for Milan during a second half that saw them raise the level of their game. Andriy Shevchenko, just back from injury, and the grateful recipient of Pirlo's precise free-kick on 73 minutes, looked sharper as the match progressed. Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and Hernan Crespo (until the introduction of Massimo Ambrosini) had more space in which to operate.
With Gattuso suspended for Tuesday's return leg, Ancelotti will almost certainly field the hard-nosed Ambrosini from the start. There's just the chance that Crespo will start on the bench, to accommodate the Christmas tree. That would represent Rui Costa's best hope of being involved.
Does it really matter though, in the context of who moves on from here, if Milan deviate from 4-4-2 at all? Inter are left praying for a miracle, and a fit Adriano!
Ancelotti said before the game, that while his personnel has changed little since their last Champions League success a couple of years ago, AC Milan have improved as a team.
I couldn't agree more.