When Barcelona and AC Milan were paired together during the second round draw, it was probably only die-hard fans and optimists that gave the AC Milan any chance of advancing into the quarterfinals.
At the end of the previous season, the club’s management decided to undertake the task of revamping its personnel. Players such as Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Gianluca Zambrotta, Thiago Silva, Mark van Bommel and Gennaro Gattuso, hitherto regarded as bulwarks of the team, were courageously let go; while mostly young players like Stephan El-Shaawary, M’Baye Niang, Riccardo Montolivio, Cristian Zapata, Kevin Constant, Bojan Krkic and Mathieu Flamini were either brought in or promoted from being fringe squad-members.
It became obvious that this rebuilding process was going to be long and painful for Milan at the beginning of this season, when coach Massimiliano Allegri’s team had one of its most woeful starts to a Serie A season – by the winter break, they were seventh in the league. The fact that Milan finished second in their Champions League group, behind debutants Malaga, was also a pointer to how far one of the most decorated Italian clubs had fallen.
On the other hand, FC Barcelona were also undergoing a change of their own. Idolised coach Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola decided to not renew his contract, choosing rather to take a break from the game. The mantle of leadership thus fell on his erstwhile assistant, Tito Vilanova, who only had little first-team coaching experience.
Football fans the world over were wondering whether Barcelona would continue to be the superpower that it was under the mercurial Guardiola – they needn’t have bothered. Vilanova’s team had the best ever start to a La Liga BBVA season, 18 wins and one draw in the season’s first 19 matches meant that he even broke the record set by his predecessor.
And then January came. Milan who had been languishing in mid-table suddenly put up a good run of form, and became genuine challengers for a Champions League qualification spot. Barcelona’s seeming invincibility was shattered by a surprising loss to Real Sociedad.
Even with this setback, few expected AC Milan to get a result at the Giuseppe Meazza when the two sides clashed in the first-leg of their tie. The Rossoneri confounded all pundits by putting up an amazing performance – they totally out-thought and outmanoeuvred the Catalan outfit, and deserved their 2-0 victory.
Analysts of the game declared that this young Milan team had finally come of age: they were a match for the best opposition and now ready to retake their place among Europe’s football elite. Barcelona on the other hand seemed to be going in the opposite direction. Back-to-back losses to the archenemy, Real Madrid, especially the second one that was against a ‘weak’ Los Blancos side, evinced declarations that their tiki-taka had run its course, and it was now time for them to think of a Plan B. It is likely that most football fans the world over couldn’t imagine how Barcelona could succeed in turning around the tie.
By March 12 it was time for the second leg. Milan came to the Nou Camp confident that they would finish the job that they started three weeks previously; while the boys in red and blue knew that they had to put in their best shifts in a while so as to have any chance of progressing.
Barcelona took the game by the scruff of the neck and Lionel Messi (who else?) put them ahead within the first five minutes. Milan were not as well organised as they were in the first leg, and Barcelona were at their merciless best.
After the final whistle, the 4-0 score line to the Catalans was well deserved for a team who, apart from a few lapses, totally dominated their opponents. So the question must now be asked: where has this Barcelona been for the past two months? Straightforward successes at the season’s commencement seems to have led the players to believe that they didn’t play at their optimum so as to attain victory; they started becoming complacent, and the juggernaut began falling asleep.
It needed to be roused, and AC Milan unwittingly became one of those who woke it up. Milan’s victory exposed the lapses that had crept into the Blaugrana’s play; and now made them vulnerable in the face of any well-prepared opponent.
The task facing assistant coach Jordi Roura was made apparent, but thankfully, the solutions where at hand: the high-intensity pressing when out of possession had to be reinstated; Andres Iniesta was restored to his more effective midfield position; Cesc Fabregas was sent to the bench; and their only true point-man, David Villa, was needed to replace the frustrating Alexis Sanchez. The result of all these tweaks was that AC Milan were pummelled mercilessly by a team hungry for revenge and with a will to put all its doubters to the sword.
Any confidence that the members of the Italian team possessed quickly began evaporating. If they had been less convincing in victory in the first leg, perhaps Barcelona would not have been as ruthless as they were, cruelly punishing the mistakes of their opponents and emphatically sending them home after a good-night’s hiding with their tail between their legs. They were the first obstacle on Barcelona’s road to redemption, and they’ll for a while bear the scars to tell the tale of how gruelling the encounter was for them.
Who knows? Maybe if the young boys from Milan had been less ‘brazen’ and ‘impetuous’, they could have departed from Spain, even if they were knocked out, with their heads high and their dignity intact; instead of leaving totally overwhelmed, bruised, and battered, in what can only be described as a Camp Nou Mauling.
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