AC Milan deserved to win -- and Barca deserved to lose
A few thoughts on AC Milan's stunning 2-0 Champions League win over Barcelona:
• Massimiliano Allegri nailed it. On the eve of this game, he noted: "Barcelona always have 65 percent of the possession; our job is to make sure that is sterile possession." This was a declaration of intent: he was going to ignore Silvio Berlusconi's advice to man-mark Leo Messi, but he was not going to ignore Barcelona's threat or try to compete for possession of the ball. Instead of trying to curtail that possession, his team would condition it, control it. And when the statistics sheets were handed out at San Siro after the game, they told just how well Allegri had read the game. Barcelona had 65 percent of the ball but just two shots on target. Sterile, indeed.
• The stats also showed that this was not the same as Barca's loss to Chelsea last year. Milan had the better chances than the visitors: "We even looked for the 3-0," Allegri smiled. There were few points at which Barcelona could say that they were desperately unlucky, even if the first goal was rather fortuitous. This was a deserved victory. By extension, it was also a deserved defeat, also one that invites analysis when it comes to how Barcelona came unstuck. Starting, perhaps, with a conceptual doubt: do Barcelona need to look for victory quite so determinedly? Jordi Roura talked about having the game "under control." Might there not be a temptation to stick with that, away at least, and invite the other team out? Is attacking always the best way to attack?
• One of the reasons for expressing those doubts was that while this was a surprise, it was not a total shock. This was the 10th game in a row in which Barcelona conceded. They had not been playing well or late and, against better opposition, there was always a risk. The warnings were there.
• After the game, Roura suggested that one of the problems Barcelona faced was the pitch, which he said was "not worthy" of the Champions League. It was a theme he returned to numerous times. It was also something that Milan's own players had noted before the game; this was no devious decision, it was just a terrible pitch in a stadium where decent grass is virtually impossible to achieve because of the climate and lack of light. The moan was probably unjustified and not especially dignified, certainly in terms of how insistently the point was made, but Roura's remark did hint at something significant when it comes to analysis of this game: he did not so much think that Barcelona lacked a Plan B as that they did not execute Plan A well enough. There was, he said, a lack of fluidity. The ball was not circulated with the usual speed and that stymied their attack. What really made life difficult for them, though, was that the game got squeezed into 15 yards and for any side that is hard to break down.
• Yet Gerard Piqué insisted afterwards that the pitch was "no excuse." Barcelona could not blame the surface for the way they played -- sluggish, lacking in surprise and inspiration -- and it is inevitable that the Plan B debate will be raised once more. Not least because Piqué himself ended up as a center forward. The problem with that is that to frame a debate in stark A or B terms fails to see that there is variety within certain styles, that it is not one thing or the polar opposite and nothing in between. It also overlooks the fact that Barcelona's style is, at least in part, one of the reasons they have been so successful. And, indeed, why they will no doubt be successful again, perhaps even in the second leg. 2-0 or better at home is certainly not beyond them.
But they have to get Plan A right and show greater range to their attacks. They have not really had a Thierry Henry type figure since the Frenchman left, for instance: someone in one of the wide positions who can really surge past a defender, outside or inside, who can assist and finish, who offers some physical presence and touch. Or a Samuel Eto'o, who guarantees goals and leads that asphyxiating pressure -- something that has been less evident in Barcelona's game this year. Shooting from further out might help to pull defenses out too. Without David Villa, it is worrying for them how few goals come from the front three. Perhaps that is not entirely surprising when the forward positions are often occupied by midfielders. The width has to come from the fullbacks often -- and that, by definition, leaves spaces to be exploited. For a while here Dani Alves' role looked like it may be decisive, at one end or the other. Does Cristian Tello offer solutions?
Besides, at one point Barcelona clearly did decide that they needed something like a stereotypical Plan B. After all, they signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic. When he left, he was not replaced by a similar player. So had they decided they no longer needed that Plan B? And if so, were they wrong? Why had they changed their mind?
• Lionel Messi. It seems absurd to question Messi. He may even be the best player of all time and trusting in him has a habit of working; he breaks records almost daily. But it is worth raising doubts about his role in the team and, more to the point, what that role does to other players around him, both in specific games and over a period of time. Also, however brilliant Messi is, isn't there a risk inherent in him carrying such a huge responsibility? Also, right now there is no escaping a sense that he doesn't quite have the freshness of before, despite all the goals. The acceleration is just that little less swift, the ideas a little less clear. For now. If he is inspired, of course, he is capable of turning the tie around.