Milan backs Barcelona into a corner; American spoils Drogba party
Two shock results ended the first legs of the Champions League round of 16. AC Milan won 2-0 over competition favorite Barcelona. In Turkey, Galatasaray's expensively assembled squad failed to beat Schalke: that game ended 1-1.
1. Milan stuns Barcelona. The world's best club is in trouble, and all the pre-match doom-mongers proved correct. Barcelona may be running away with La Liga, but the storylines going into to this game proved all the reasons for caution: its nine-game run of conceding goals, an over-reliance on Lionel Messi to get it out of trouble, a defensive weakness on the flanks, David Villa out with a kidney problem and another striker, Alexis Sanchez, woefully short of goals and confidence. Don't forget the absence of coach Tito Vilanova, receiving cancer treatment in New York.
And so it happened: AC Milan played the perfect counter-attacking game, allowing Barcelona possession in its final third but closing the flanks and squeezing them in the middle. Whenever possible, Stephan El Shaarawy took the chance to run into the gaps left by Dani Alves. The mohawked forward had the Catalan defense running scared with his pace (not to mention that hairstyle).
Milan had thought of everything: Messi reportedly had a bad night's sleep because Milan fans were chanting outside the visiting team's hotel last night, while the San Siro pitch looked sandy and heavy, a far cry from the billiard-table smooth surface of Camp Nou.
Yet even from the kickoff, when Barcelona spent the first minute passing the ball in its own half, the Catalan side looked sluggish, lethargic. It only showed real urgency after Sulley Muntari's superb volley had doubled Milan's lead with nine minutes left to play.
About 24 minutes earlier, Kevin-Prince Boateng had put Milan ahead, reacting quickest to a pinball after a free kick when the ball cannoned off two players: as Barcelona arms went up to appeal for a Cristian Zapata handball, Boateng spun on the edge of the area and fired into Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes' far corner.
Even at that point, Barcelona did not look too concerned: its game plan this season has not been to press defenses, and so Milan looked relaxed in possession, were not harried in dangerous positions, and in midfield Ricardo Montolivo was outstanding. A 1-0 defeat would have been unexpected but not a disaster for Barcelona.
Had Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri spoken to Jose Mourinho as part of his preparations? This was not quite the backs-to-the-wall effort of Mourinho's Inter Milan side in the 2010 semifinal -- after all, that Barcelona performance was far better than this one -- but this was another two-goal home win (Inter won the first leg 3-1 and lost the second 1-0) at the San Siro. It seems trite to say that another solid defensive display in three weeks will be enough. Surely Barcelona won't be as ineffective again.
Muntari's effort changes everything: it came after some superb work by teenage sub M'Baye Niang, taking advantage of slack defending to center to El Shaarawy, whose audacious "flick and dink" released the midfielder for a first-time volley past Valdes. His celebration was a cheesy dance routine with Boateng: both scorers were Ghanaian, former teammates at Portsmouth and now destroying the dreams of one of the best teams this game has ever seen. Barcelona has reached the Champions League semifinal for the last five seasons but this year, even the quarterfinal might be beyond it.
2. American Jones spoils Drogba's party. Jermaine Jones, one of two U.S. players left in the Champions League round of 16, scored a crucial away goal for underdog Schalke in its first leg 1-1 draw at Galatasaray. Just before halftime, Jones smashed home Jefferson Farfan's pinpoint center after a counter attack to level the score and silence the fearsome 52,000-capacity stadium in Istanbul.
Galatasaray looked set to be one of the stories of this round: after signing Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba in January, it was strongly favored to dispatch a Schalke side with just one win in its last 11 games with interim coach Jens Keller struggling to last the season.
The Turkish champion started like it meant business: Drogba was part of the move that allowed Burak Yilmaz to lash home an emphatic opening goal in the 12th minute, a strike that put the Turkish striker joint top of the competition scorers' chart alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, with seven in as many games. Yilmaz now has 20 in 24 Galatasaray games since signing last summer, an impressive tally for a player whose arrival was questioned by fans and media when he joined.
Soon after, Drogba's strength and movement forced a shot that keeper Timo Hildebrand parried into the path of Hamit Altintop, whose bullet shot smacked the crossbar. No team has hit the woodwork more than Galatasaray in Europe this season.
But Schalke also had some chances. Galatasaray made mistakes in midfield and was far too open at the back. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was guilty of the biggest miss, failing to connect from a flicked-on corner from two yards out; and when Felipe Melo lost the ball in his own half, Schalke broke and Jones finished it off in the 45th. He is the second American to score in a Champions League knockout game, the other DaMarcus Beasley for PSV against Monaco in 2005.
The analysis will focus heavily on Galatasaray coach Fatih Terim and his decision to take off Sneijder at halftime. While the arrival of Nordin Amrabat improved the hosts' shape, Schalke had the better of the second half and had shouts for a penalty turned down when Farfan's shot looked to have struck Galatasaray's Sabri Sarioglu on the arm. When Huntelaar volleyed over in the 75th, Keller had seen enough: he was subbed off immediately (capping a rotten night for him and Sneijder, ex-teammates at Ajax).
Is this what Galatasaray president Aysal Ünal had in mind when he spent €88 million on new signings this season? "I want to make this club one of Europe's top 10 sides," he said on his election success in May 2011. Unsurprisingly, Galatasaray's rivals were not so generous about the champion's largesse. When Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim accused Ünal of manipulating funds, the response was withering: "I will not stoop so low as to reply to someone who has been convicted for match-fixing," he said, referring to the case that last year saw Fenerbahce kicked out of the Champions League.
This was its first test on the big stage, and Galatsaray fell short. You sense that fault-lines may soon appear, given the reports that suggested Terim did not want Sneijder in January. He had preferred Kaka. Schalke had also exposed the weakness at left back, where Hakan Balta had disappointed, so leading to Albert Riera's selection; and Terim did not want Cris, the center back he signed last summer, shipped off to Gremio six months after joining.
But the one glimmer of hope was Drogba: his partnership with Yilmaz was constantly dangerous, and the Turk could have doubled his tally with a late shot, from a Drogba header, that he dragged wide. By the time the second half was under way, Drogba was back to his best: begging referees' assistants for corners, clasping his hands in imprecation at the referee. His absence from Europe has been missed: but Schalke won't make it easy in the second leg.