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Apr 19, 2006

Milan malaise

One mist-enveloped train trip back home from the San Siro Wednesday morning brought forth some reflections the Milan-Barcelona tussle.

And that's despite my reserved seat being occupied by a fellow who wouldn't react to my hunting horn-in-the-ear attempts at waking him up - so I had to sit in another place. That's real Italy for those of you who still believe in the laughable myth of the country of sun and nice people conjured up by those who write cheesy books on charming Tuscan retreats.

Many readers will have watched the game and drawn their own conclusions; for those who didn't, here's what can be saved from the experience. Milan and Barcelona's, not mine, of course.

The wide-angle vision of sitting in a stadium is, obviously, the best aid in trying to understand what each team was trying to accomplish, and yesterday was no exception. It provided another valuable lesson in team tactics and individual skills. After all, one never ceases to learn about teams and players.

Barcelona were solid despite letting Milan have a few cracks at goal, including a left-footer by Gilardino which hit the post from a narrow angle and a header by Shevchenko which Valdes turned for a corner.

Milan had a couple of almost identical chances in the second half when first Kaka then Ambrosini were put through on the left side of Barca's central defence, the Brazilian choosing to lay it across for Gilardino to horribly mis-kick it wide.

Conventional wisdom says the absent Inzaghi would have put it in with an ear, thigh, knee or any other protruding part of his body, and conventional wisdom this time was right - with Gilardino slicing it wide.

Barca's 4-3-3 was not a "pure" one, as Van Bronckhorst stayed a few yards in front of his three defensive colleagues and Edmilson - as in previous Milan-Barcelona clashes - followed Kaka everywhere, even when the Catalans/Spaniards (choose your own version and do not shoot the messenger) had the ball inside Milan's half.

After all, Kaka's runs from deep are one significant goalscoring source for Milan and it was just right that Edmilson would try to prevent his international team-mate from getting easy possession early, turning and shifting gears.

Kaka did this to some effect once in the first half when Puyol brought him down and was booked and - albeit from a more advanced position - only once more, late in the game, giving a glimpse of what may be in store in one week's time. Some have already started refering to 'the wide open spaces' of the Camp Nou pitch - as if they took on a certain degree of openness by themselves and not because either team fails to protect them.

With Pirlo again subdued, partly by his recurrent bad form and partly by Barcelona's good positioning and pressure on the ball (see Iniesta, Andres on your football's Who's who) it was clear Milan had to find other avenues.

But Seedorf rarely went beyond the average and on the same left flank while Serginho did not dare overlap too much, lest Barcelona's three nominal forwards find themselves with too much room to operate on the break.

Up front, Gilardino twice eluded Marquez, who produced an unspectacular performance, and Puyol battled hard against Shevchenko, whose contributions to Milan's cause extended to the delicate flick that sent Kaka one-on-one against Valdes in the second half.

Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti - who despite the recent extension of his contract until 2008 is still being rumoured to be Real Madrid's choice for next season - noted how he had not been impressed by Barcelona.

But the blaugrana did not sit back and wait for Milan to come and produced an impressive display for a visiting team with a reputation for being somewhat vulnerable in defence.

They did not enjoy as much possession as Olympique Lyon had done two weeks earlier when, one must remember, Milan - a side who will need a few significant changes soon but may still win it all - were two minutes from going out before the goal-poaching instincts of Inzaghi surfaced yet again. But Barca gave the overall impression of a side that is reaching maturity and complete self-confidence.

And how couldn't it, with Ronaldinho always one stutter-step away from extracting gold from cobbles? Cheered by many Milan fans during the warm-up, greeted with considerably less enthusiasm (read: booed) once he was taken off with a minute to go, Ronaldinho did not spark from the start and at one point even failed to trap a simple pass.

But it was clear Milan had to be aware of him all the time, and the gem of his through-ball from a standstill position for Giuly's goal while still trying to fend off the last twitch of Gattuso's challenge was the highlight of the evening, although a thought must be spared for the French forward who made an intelligent diagonal run between Nesta and Kaladze.

It showed impressive knowledge of what your team-mate can do and he hit a great shot on the turn (for once, Dida's fault was minimal, although he failed to cover his near post) with his left, i.e. 'wrong' foot.

Ronaldinho created, Pirlo didn't. Although they are completely different players in physical build, speed and appearance, with the Milan playmaker rarely wearing his emotions on his sleeve, the former tried and tried, despite the rossoneri's close attention, until he got his thing beautifully right.

The latter faded and was taken off. Ancelotti chose to change his 4-3-1-2 system by bringing in Maldini on the left, which in turn pushed Serginho forward, with Seedorf and Gattuso inside and Kaka on the right completing the switch to 4-4-2.

Frank Rijkaard, cheered by the home fans for his wonderful past with the rossoneri, immediately countered by sending in Belletti before another change meant Ambrosini, a strong header of the ball and thus possibly useful in the final free-for-all, replaced Gattuso.

That Ambrosini had his chance not from a header but on his favourite right foot, and wasted it, was in a way ironic, although Milan fans at the San Siro did use different adjectives once they saw the ball bob wide of the post.

Basically, again, it boiled down to a deceptively simple combination of words, given that both teams have an impressive gallery of stars and the return leg is open to all results: on the night, Barcelona had Ronaldinho, Milan did not. Some difference.


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