FC Barcelona turned in a below-average performance to escape the San Siro with a 0-0 draw in their UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg with AC Milan. The Serie A leaders started the better side, with Robinho missing a clear chance to open the scoring as early as the second minute. Barcelona settled into possession, although Milan were arguably the more dangerous side on the counter-attack. The main talking point came on 15 minutes as Alexis Sanchez was denied a clear penalty after Christian Abbiati brought the Chilean down in the area, and Lionel Messi had a goal ruled out for offside minutes later as Barcelona piled on the pressure. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a one-on-one effort saved by Valdes in what could go down as one of the game’s best chances, before Luca Antonini made a superb recovery to deny Alexis Sanchez a shot on goal. The second half was a drab affair, but Carles Puyol’s diving header nearly broke the deadlock and could have even led to a penalty with Djamel Mesbah lucky to get away with a blatant shirt pull. By the time Lionel Messi’s side-footed effort was saved in the 87th minute, you could tell the match was destined to end 0-0, and that was compounded by Antonini’s goal-saving block on Cristian Tello’s attempt at the rebound. With the second leg just six days away, Barcelona have a bit of work to do.
Pep Guardiola surprised the majority of us with his team selection, purely because Seydou Keita started ahead of Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, although his decision was understandable as the match progressed. The pitch was not suited to true wing-play, and Cesc Fabregas’ inclusion in the midfield would probably have been wasted as there was little space for the lobbed through balls he has made his trademark. Keita’s muscle sent a clear message to Milan, and in my opinion, it was a declaration of intent from Pep Guardiola. Avoiding defeat was given a greater importance than winning the match, which is very much uncharacteristic of Pep.
Clearly, this competition is taking on an extra importance given the league standings. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate.
Milan started much the better side as Barcelona struggled to adapt to the playing surface, with Boateng have two shots deflected in the opening minute and a half, with the second falling kindly to Robinho, but the Brazilian completely made a hash of it, sending a volley well over the bar.
Once Barcelona settled though, the tie took on a more familiar pattern of Blaugrana possession with the occasional Milan counter-attack. Xavi and Lionel Messi were combining well as per usual, and the Spaniard set up the Argentine on the edge of the area with Messi sending his shot straight at Abbiati. It should have been a straight-forward saved for the Italian keeper, but he spilled it needlessly, and was lucky that Dani Alves couldn’t convert the gift of a chance.
Then came the moment of controversy.
Barcelona had won a free-kick central to goal around 30 yards out, with the usual suspects standing over the ball. Despite Dani Alves’ run up, Xavi took it short to Sergio Busquets and Busi displayed that world-class first touch to play in Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean’s first touch was also good, and while he could have shot, he tried to get past the on-rushing Abbiati, and very nearly did so. However, Abbiati’s out-stretched hands brought him down in what looked like a stonewall penalty. The referee was not in the best position, but the assistant behind the goal had a clear view, but still didn’t make the call.
The three most influential Barcelona attackers and coincidentally the three players who stood over that free-kick (Messi, Alves and Xavi) combined minutes later with Alves laying on a deep cross for Lionel Messi to tap the ball into the net, but the linesman correctly flagged for offside.
Milan were still threatening on the counter attack and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was played through on goal around the 20 minute mark, but Carles Puyol did spectacularly well to get back and put the Swede off, and his shot was relatively straight forward for Victor Valdes. Barcelona responded by creating their clearest chance yet as Xavi and Messi lit up the San Siro with a dazzling one-two that culminated in a Xavi volley, but Abbiati made a good save to deny the midfielder, and the score stayed at 0-0.
For all of their possession, Barcelona were simply not creating enough chances, and one of their best chances came after a simple clearance which played Sanchez through on goal. Given his pace I expected Sanchez to surge through on goal and slot the ball past Abbiati, but Luca Antonini recovered – God knows how – and made a superb intervention as Alexis winded up to shoot. The first half was over, and an entertaining 45 minutes was over without any goals.
The second half started with Barcelona on the front foot, and Andres Iniesta – who had a poor first half – cutting inside from the left and letting fly with an effort that went just wide of the near post. From there on in though, the game hit a bit of a lull. There were niggling fouls here and there, and the game lost its flow as both sides made substitutions. Milan were the first to blink if you will replacing Robinho with Stephan El Shaarawy, who played far better than the Brazilian, before Andres Iniesta was replaced by Cristian Tello on 64 minutes.
Urby Emmanuelson was also introduced to the fray soon after, and could have made an instant impact if his first touch was any better. Tello was also making an impact at the other end, using his pace to escape Daniele Bonera before firing into the side netting. It was a poor decision and Messi let his young teammate know. Frustration all round then...
Alessandro Nesta was not quite ready for 90 minutes, and was replaced by Mesbah after a master-class performance at the back for Milan. That prompted a reshuffle at the back for Milan, which nearly cost them later on. Pedro replaced Alexis Sanchez as Pep made his final roll of the dice in an attempt to swing the match in Barcelona’s favour.
Ambrosini made an important block to deny Lionel Messi, before Barcelona came the closest to goal thanks to an unlikely source as Carles Puyol launched himself into a diving header that was glanced just wide of the far post. Replays suggest that Mesbah was pulling the Barca captain back, but to be fair, Puyi didn’t seem too bothered at the time.
Speaking of time, it was running out for Barcelona, and Lionel Messi side-footed a shot at goal after Mesbah slipped in the area, but Abbiati clawed that effort away, prompting a mad scramble for the ball which resulted in Tello’s shot being blocked by Antonini who celebrated as if he had won the match. Turns out he didn’t, but a 0-0 home draw was received joyously by the home crowd, which says an awful lot about the two teams.
Here we have two sets of fans, one who is happy after a 0-0 draw at home, and another who is left frustrated as their side dominates possession away from home, against one of Europe’s best teams. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know, I don’t know what does.
Man of the Match for me is Carles Puyol, who was colossal at the back. It didn’t matter that he was at left-back, he still led by example, doing enough to distract Ibra in his one-on-one, block Nocerino’s cross in a dangerous counter-attack as well as nearly get on the scoresheet. Kudos to Gerard Pique as well, but I would like to see more from Andres Iniesta, and Alexis Sanchez, as both were near anonymous tonight. Onto Saturday, and a home match with Bielsa’s Bilbao!