Pompey old boys leave sluggish Barca on ropes
AC Milan 2 Barcelona 0
Published 21/02/2013 | 04:00
Perhaps the San Siro's gargantuan screen should have read: Portsmouth 2 Barcelona 0.
On an extraordinary night at this concrete citadel, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, two players who once represented the benighted south coast club now reduced to the indignity of League One, inspired Milan to their first triumph over Barcelona in eight encounters and sent the four-time champions to the brink of elimination.
As Boateng and Muntari were heralded to the skies by Milan's 75,000 jubilant supporters, it scarcely seemed credible to recall their more humble beginnings at Fratton Park.
But Portsmouth, or more specifically Harry Redknapp, clearly had the eye for an accomplished goalscorer as two of their recent alumni joined forces to condemn Barcelona to defeat with two devastating second-half finishes.
On the first night of Milan Fashion Week, everybody expected this to be a sumptuous affair. For an hour it was assuredly no catwalk, as the sophisticates of Savoy and the connoisseurs of Catalonia succeeded only in cancelling each other out.
But then came Boateng, twirling and shooting seemingly in one movement to put the hosts ahead, before Muntari's delicious volley applied the coup de grace.
The second from Muntari was one of which tennis world No 1 Novak Djokovic, in the crowd last night, would have been proud. The more mystifying performance came from Barcelona, as they struggled to have any impact.
Jordi Roura was stepping in as manager for Tito Vilanova, recovering from throat surgery at a New York hospital, and from the outset their tactics looked confused as Cesc Fabregas found himself isolated, while Andres Iniesta was a shadow of his normal talismanic self. Even the great Lionel Messi was painfully subdued.
The San Siro pitch appeared to be cutting up badly, which threatened to disrupt Barcelona's mesmeric passing rhythm. Not that Messi was deterred, as he fashioned what was to be a rare moment of brilliance, controlling Jordi Alba's corner before producing some barely credible footwork.
From the ensuing corner, Giampaolo Pazzini did well to block Gerard Pique's sharp header.
Milan were not without early opportunities of their own, as Boateng clipped the ball past Carles Puyol to create an enticing opening for Stephan El Shaarawy, whose touch was too strong and allowed Victor Valdes to clear comfortably.
The problem was that whenever Milan ceded possession, they faced a devilish struggle to regain it. So it transpired as Barcelona switched the ball to the right for Dani Alves tearing down the flank, although El Shaarawy was on hand to provide the crucial interception.
While Barca might have been slick, the home side's achievement lay in denying them a single clear scoring opportunity in the entire first half.
Between them, Riccardo Montolivo and Kevin Constant had found a solution to the apparently age-old problem of how to stop Messi, constantly suffocating his space whenever he dared to drift out wide.
The decision to play Fabregas rather than Iniesta on the left also looked dubious, as Barcelona conspicuously lacked their lethal signature pass from midfield.
Milan, sensing that there was no final ball to endless pretty build-up play, saw that they had a chance to take hold of the game. Then Cristian Zapata hesitated in attack, Muntari rushed in to retrieve, threading an audacious crossfield pass towards El Shaarawy, fractionally too long for the stretching Italian.
While Barcelona reshuffled to a more direct approach early in the second half, with Iniesta playing more centrally, the change did little to unshackle them as Montolivo and his well-drilled midfield brigade continued to stifle their creativity.
What it required to break the impasse was a moment of controversy. Montolivo's 30-yard strike plainly cannoned off the arm of Zapata, straight into the path of Boateng, who pirouetted on the edge of the box before driving his finish beyond Valdes. Barca were indignant, especially captain Puyol, but all they received for their troubles was a booking for Pique.
A sure sign of Barcelona's shock was the rarest smattering of loose passes, and it was little surprise when the ineffectual Fabregas made way for Alexis Sanchez. The goal produced the shot of energy the match needed and Milan attempted increasingly to pounce on the counter-attack, such as when Pazzini unleashed a volley that failed to trouble Valdes.
Barcelona became desperate, with Xavi muscled off the ball in his quest for the equaliser, before Iniesta belatedly connected with a right-foot shot that flashed just wide of Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. But it was to become better, much better for Milan as they gained in confidence from their guests' toothlessness.
Substitute M'Baye Niang forced Puyol off a long ball into the penalty area, and deftly knocked it across to El Shaarawy in the middle. From there the 20-year-old made the rest look easy, looping the ball over his man to the onrushing Muntari, who delivered an exquisite volley past Valdes. The San Siro tifosi were in ecstasy.
Milan had stuck fast to their game plan of defending deep and catching Barcelona on the break, and it had worked spectacularly.
Should they add to their herculean efforts here with an away goal at the Nou Camp, the four-time champions would need to score four and the most cathartic triumph would be all but complete. (© Daily Telegraph, London)