It’s hard to focus on just one player from the AC Milan side that pulled off one of their biggest Champions League wins in recent years, but in a performance heralded as tactically brilliant, defensively brave and hard working all-around, two men, Ricardo Montolivo and Kevin-Prince Boateng stand out a bit more than the rest.
Milan closed down the penalty box, with Philippe Mexes staying close as possible to Lionel Messi while Messi was hanging around on the edge of the penalty area. The 10-man approach by the Milan defense might not be considered the “attractive” way to play football, but you do what you can to eliminate the advantage Barcelona hold over you. Milan simply attacked and defended with everyone – that’s not parking the bus, as some like to point out; that’s simply putting an incredible effort into the match.
For those saying why don’t everyone play this way against Barcelona, well, you can try, but Milan simply put a defensive performance without a single mistake. Giampaolo Pazzini made it very hard for the initial ball movement to begin, troubling both Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets at the beginning of every play. On the wings, Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin Prince-Boateng made sure that at no time, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba crossed the half way line unchecked. There was never a two-on-one advantage on either wing in favor of Barcelona, which is usually something they rely on to create panic in their opponents’ defense.
And from here comes the tireless work in the middle by Muntari and Montolivo. Sulley Muntari has a knack from scoring big goals; Kevin-Prince Boateng can disappear for matches at a time, but then announce his presence with a big goal; at that moment, it didn’t really matter if Zapata touched his hand or not, and how can all the officials in the world miss that. Milan scored a goal, and until we get replays to assist them, human mistakes are part of the game. I hate hearing that phrase (…part of the game…) but it doesn’t make it any less true.
Muntari hounded Xavi every time he tried to move the ball to the right to Pedro, closing down the passing lane, backed up by Abate, who is rarely this disciplined with his positioning and execution of instructions. Ricardo Montolivo did the rest. There were the moments of Lionel Messi trying to escape Mexes’ reach, so he dropped back to the midfield (not enough). Every time that happened, on almost every touch Messi had closer than 35 meters to the Milan goal, Montolivo was there to intercept or strip the ball away from the frustrated Argentine. Milan simply left no passing option for Barcelona to advance beyond a certain line.
On offense, it wasn’t a lot of planning – simply good execution of the counter attack. M’baye Niang was troubling to Alba and anyone covering in the few touches he got, and the El Shaarawy touch that set up the goal for Muntari was a mix of brilliance by the young striker, missing his usual partner, and the Barcelona defense losing its wits.
It’s going to take the same kind of flawless defensive execution at the Camp Nou for Milan to pull through, and it’s hard to tell with this side this season. Do they have what it takes to pull off the stunner twice against the same team? With the kind of focus and sacrifice, leaving everything on the pitch against a much more talented rival (cliche, but true), there’s a very good chance the 2-0 lead should hold up.