AC Milan Club Focus: 180 minutes of Barcelona
The fixtures were drawn, leaving a grim expression on the faces of the Milan hierarchy. Facing Barcelona for the fifth and sixth time in two seasons was far too daunting a task to entertain. But such is fate. The two sides are facing each other at polarizing points in their respective cycles. One has achieved greatness, immortality even. The other is flirting with obscurity.
Milan have been written off with aplomb. Several pundits and fans alike are rushing to hasty declarations about the result and the manner with which Barcelona will triumph over the Italians. These proclamations aren’t far-fetched, but paint a portrait of the frightening reality of today’s times for Silvio Berlusconi’s famed football club.
Milan lack talismans, leaders, and even quality footballers for that matter. They are tactically dim-witted and possess a painfully predictable footballing philosophy. Their weaknesses outweigh their strengths by good measure, facilitating the setting of a stage fit for their delectable sacrifice at the hands of the Catalans. However, Milan can escape this traumatic tie with a respectable defeat, or better still, a sweet and savored victory.
Milan’s defensive dilemmas are no hidden secret. A bunch of poorly trained school kids are likely to put up greater resistance when compared to this overpaid roster of over-hyped stars. But beating Barcelona does not require world-class footballers, but a tried and tested system. Many loosely call it ‘parking the bus’. I prefer to call it defending sensibly.
Barcelona thrive in between the lines, finding pocket of spaces to unleash their lethality. They are quick, yet composed and telepathic. Milan are slow, cumbersome, unimaginative, disastrous in defense and dependent in attack. Milan enjoy holding onto possession in defense/deeper midfield, and that is precisely where Barcelona exercise high pressure. In short, Milan, in theory, have every chance of being brutalized over a hundred and eighty minutes. But there are some corrective measures, which on implementation, could yield success.
Barcelona enjoy playing against a high-line. Their forwards are gifted with mind-numbing pace, and could slaughter defenses with through balls or chips over the last man. They particularly dislike teams that put men behind the ball and defend in limited spaces. Barcelona thrive against wider oppositions, because width immediately implies crevices to feed the ball into. Dogged blocks confound the Spaniards and they often lack a plan B against opponents adopting narrow formations.
Milan’s weaknesses could work in their favor. Their defenders aren’t the fastest, don’t read the game particularly well and play with a degree of physicality which is often despised. Milan’s defense appears more bankable when they play a deeper line. They have proven to be harder to break down when they crunched the space between midfield and defense. They also show greater grit when protecting the box in numbers. Their brutish approach consequentially overpowers physically weaker oppositions.
Milan were much the inferior team against Malaga, even in the way they set-up themselves against Manuel Pellegrini’s men. Milan did concede goals, but they were largely due to the ingenious of players such as Manuel Iturra and Isco. I’m not claiming an intimidated approach will necessarily thwart Barcelona, but it’s likely to minimize their threat. Barcelona cry foul play over aggressive challenges, distracting them from focusing on their awe-inspiring style of football. That, at times, gets the job done.
Milan, amidst this strong focus on saving their blushes, cannot ignore the importance of attack. Defending for a hundred and eighty minutes is impossible and counterproductive. If Milan must progress, they must score goals. With the imminent departures of Pato and Robinho, Milan will be threadbare in attack, unless a ‘champion’ arrives. Many believe this champion is recognized by the name of Didier Drogba.
Drogba would potentially be a key player against Barcelona’s timid defenders. His ox-like physique would torment them, (as he did in the 2008/09 season at Stamford Bridge) and he could perfectly administer Milan’s counter-attacks. He can hold the ball, invite players onto the final phase of the pitch and score some ridiculous goals. In the present scenario, Drogba’s arrival at the club becomes altogether significant.
Milan enter this tie knowing fully well, that defeat could spell the end of the road for them in Europe this season, and possibly for the near future as well. But they need not throw in the towel even before the ball is kicked. Inter and Chelsea have demonstrated a maligned system of football which is the anti-Barcelona way of securing results. In short, Barcelona, albeit mercurial, are not invincible.
I believe Milan possess the tools and the players to cross the finishing line with dignity. The absence of Nigel De Jong will be felt, because he is just the type of footballer Milan need against the might of Barcelona. His annoying presence, his stubborn persistence and his bullish ball-winning nature would terrify Barcelona’s midfield into surrendering possession. But lest we forget, a returning Sulley Muntari should be fit and raring to go, and could be Milan’s main man over a hundred and eighty minutes. He will harry, he will hassle, and he could heave them midgets off the ledge.