Home » Champ League, Latest » CL Match Report: AC Milan 0 Barcelona 0

If you can successfully neutralise a player who is on a run of 18 goals in eight games for the best club team in the world, you are entitled to consider the job half done. Milan’s defenders tracked and shadowed and blocked to immense effect last night, preventing Lionel Messi from scoring or at least inspiring the goals that would have eased Barcelona’s task in the return leg at the Camp Nou.

Both managers were forced to make adjustments to their respective rearguards. Without Thiago Silva, Milan’s most reliable defender this season but injured 10 minutes into Saturday’s 2-1 win over Roma, Massimiliano Allegri selected Philippe Mexès to partner Alessandro Nesta and retained Daniele Bonera at right back in place of Ignazio Abate, another recent casualty. The suspended Mark van Bommel, his midfield shield, was replaced by the club captain, Massimo Ambrosini. For the visitors, deprived of the unfortunate Eric Abidal, who is expected to undergo a liver transplant this week, Pep Guardiola moved Barcelona’s captain, Carles Puyol, to left back and brought back Javier Mascherano to resume an emergency partnership with Gerard Piqué. Seydou Keïta was chosen to reinforce the base of midfield alongside Sergio Busquets, in place of Cesc Fábregas.

Both teams, too, were without significant strikers in the shapes of Milan’s Pato and Barça’s David Villa, the victims of long-term injuries. The two teams had already met in the competition this season, Barcelona getting the better of their two group matches with a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou and a 3-2 win at San Siro. Barcelona’s previous visit, in the semi-finals in 2006, resulted in a 1-0 win, and Milan have not beaten the Catalan club on home ground since 2004.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s resentment of his treatment during his single season at Barcelona continues to fester, although few can share his amazement that Guardiola would favour Messi ahead of the Swede as the spearhead of his attack. Yet his careful header across the six-yard box should have led to Milan taking the lead in the third minute, after Kevin-Prince Boateng’s shot had been blocked by Piqué, but an unmarked Robinho sent his volley flying over the bar from point-blank range, with Víctor Valdés helpless.

Four minutes later Messi slipped while taking a free kick after Nesta had fouled him a couple of yards outside the box. The television replay showed that a green laser had been directed on to the little Argentinian’s face, clearly bothering him as he prepared to take the kick, which looped gently over the defence and almost fell at Keïta’s feet.

Barcelona started to monopolise possession and had their own close-range chance in the ninth minute, when Mexés conceded possession on the edge of the Milan area, Messi shot through Bonera’s legs, Christian Abbiati failed to make a clean save and Daniel Alves nudged the rebound past the post. Alves was the next to experience the green laser treatment, again as Messi readied himself to take a free kick from which Alexis Sénchez might have been awarded a penalty had he not made such a production of exaggerating his dive when caught by Abbiati’s foot as he sprinted across the goalkeeper.

Valdés’s alert response to a half-hit shot from 10 yards out prevented Ibrahimovic from scoring in the 20th minute when the Swede ran on to a clever pass from Clarence Seedorf, but five minutes later only a great stop from Abbiati kept out Xavi Hernández’s strike, after an exchange with Messi cut the heart out of the Milan defence.

Well aware that they would be forced to endure the usual ordeal by tiki-taka, Milan concentrated on packing the centre of defence and looking for the opportunity to counter-attack. A swift build-up involving Ibrahimovic and Antonio Nocerino might have brought a dividend had Seedorf not spoiled it with a poor volleyed effort. When Sánchez broke clear of Luca Antonini down the middle in the 35th minute, the Milan defender recovered brilliantly to make a block as the Chilean shot.

The half ended with Barcelona having failed to capitalise on all that possession, their frustration evident as Andrés Iniesta blazed a shot wildly over the bar from 30 yards. Iniesta returned to the theme a minute into the second period, scampering in from the left to send a much better shot skimming past the post from 20 yards. Two minutes later Mascherano caught Robinho on the ankle with a malicious challenge, and after no more than a cursory inspection by the physiotherapist the infuriating Brazilian was replaced by the 19-year-old Stephan El-Shaarawy.

When a brief passage of co-ordinated Milan attacking broke down in the 57th minute, Messi led the charge up to the other end. Confronted by three defenders, he pushed the ball too far ahead but was caught anyway by Nesta, who stuck out his foot and, to make sure, applied a flailing arm. This time there appeared to be no sign of the laser beam as he measured the free kick, but another disappointing effort, this time from 25 yards, sailed over Abbiati’s bar.

Iniesta, whose contribution had extended little beyond those two shots, was replaced after 65 minutes by Cristian Tello, the 20-year-old Spanish striker, as Guardiola tried to refresh his team’s approach to breaking down an obdurate defence.

A ferocious concentration on closing off the central areas paid off for the home side, denying Messi the opportunity to capitalise on the vast amount of possession enjoyed by his side.

As a result, Milan will not be pessimistic about their chance of finding a way through into the semi-final when the sides meet again next week.

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