Camp Nou, Barcelona
Tuesday, March 12, 2013; 20:45 Hrs CET
The last couple of weeks have been rather testing for FC Barcelona, on and off the field. Though the ongoing health issues of Barcelona’s manager in absentia, Tito Vilanova, have been long known, beating AC Milan and progressing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League seemed a mere formality. After all, the Rossoneri are a team in transition who (supposedly) lost their European pedigree by bidding farewell to a host of veterans over the last summer. While the likes of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta were allowed to leave due to their advanced age, others like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva have been sold to balance the books in light of the impending Fifa Financial Fair Play regulations.
This Barcelona team on the other hand has long been touted to be one of the finest football sides ever. On paper at the very least, the match-up between two of Europe’s traditional powerhouses appeared to be an uneven contest. At this point in time Barcelona was (is) considered by many to be the reference in European football. Fast forward just a couple of weeks and the very same Barcelona side find themselves on the brink of a massive upset courtesy of the Rossoneri.
While it would be premature to declare this tie over, Barcelona are not looking likely to progress any further in the tournament. The 2-0 defeat in Milan leaves Lionel Messi & Co. with a daunting task – scoring at least two or more goals to ensure extra-time or outright qualification AND keeping a clean sheet. A solitary goal by AC Milan would all but confirm Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League.
Team News & Tactical Brief
If history and recent patterns are anything to go by then Barcelona are almost certain to depart Europe’s most prestigious club competition. The Catalan outfit has struggled in the past to overturn deficits in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
The 3-1 defeat to Inter Milan in the first leg of the 2009/10 semi-finals proved to be decisive as Barcelona only managed to win 1-0 at the Camp Nou. Furthermore, in 2011/12 the Blaugrana were also defeated by Chelsea FC in their first leg (1-0), and drew 2-2 in the return fixture at home. In both instances Barcelona’s away defeats were crucial in the outcome of the tie.
Besides, Barcelona’s defense is leaking goals. Had Barcelona not kept a clean sheet in their 2-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna they would’ve established a new questionable record of having conceded at least one goal in 14 consecutive fixtures across all competitions.
Barcelona’s negligence of acquiring at least one quality center-back is making its presence felt. The partnership of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique (the bedrock of Barcelona’s success in the first three years of Pep Guardiola’s reign) isn’t the rock-solid foundation it used to be. For one Pique is irregularly showing the kind of form and promise that had many declare him to be the best centre-back in Europe and two, Carles Puyol is finding himself on the treatment table more often than on the pitch.
Barcelona’s second string ‘centre-backs’ are just slightly above average at best. Javier Mascherano is a formidable deputy but he’s regularly exposed by exceptionally good counter-attacking sides whereas Alex Song is almost exclusively restricted to midfield, if any when he features at all.
Assuming that AC Milan leaves the initiative to Barcelona, the emphasis should be on the Catalans’ attack. But the Alzugrana’s forwards have found form and consistency hard to come by. Not just in 2013 but throughout the whole campaign thus far. Barcelona’s top 3 scores are Lionel Messi (51 goals), David Villa (12) and Cesc Fabregas (9).
Even more worrisome is the tendency of Barcelona’s technical staff to shift Andres Iniesta to the left-wing in order to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in midfield, at the expense of David Villa. The game in Milan once more lend credibility that Barcelona are essentially a one-man team. The Rossoneri collectively rendered Lionel Messi mute, to the effect that La Pulga cut a rather frustrated and isolated figure throughout the match, anonymous even.
At present, Barcelona don’t possess a Plan B to their usually successful Plan A. However, by collectively nullifying Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s superior ball retention and possession is almost obsolete. The Alzugrana rarely, if ever, attempt to shoot from outside the box and don’t have a traditional target man within their ranks.
To put some context on the earlier observations, even in 2009/10 when Barcelona’s triumvirate was much more potent and the goals more ‘evenly’ spread amongst them, not even then were the Alzugrana able to score more than one goal and avoid elimination at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
By creating the false No.9 position for Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola managed to unlock La Pulga’s full potential. Nevertheless, it irreversibly made Barcelona predictable and Messi-dependent. Not to mention aerially impotent. A Didier Drogba-esque player would go a long way in creating space and provide an outlet for crosses into the box, but Barcelona currently lack a forward of formidable height and physicality.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-3-3): Victor Valdés(GK); Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves; Sergi Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi; Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez
Milan find themselves in the most unlikeliest of situations in this match. No one in the world would’ve guessed that they will score two goals against the best team in the world, while keeping a clean sheet at the same time. However, on that fateful night at San Siro, Milan outplayed, outthought and outwitted Barcelona and totally subdued the best player in the world – Messi. The fact that Milan never went on the defensive full but sought to block out spaces meant that all the rotten apple talk about ‘parking the bus’ held no water.
Coming to this leg, Milan knows all too well what exactly is at stake – the chance to knock out Barcelona and progress in this year’s Champions League. According to a wierd statistic, every year ending with ‘3’ had either Juventus or Milan as the finalist starting from 1963. Serie A fans will be hoping for the best should one of the teams qualify but if Milan do knock out Barcelona at this stage, it will be solely due to the enormous effort put in by Allegri.
Milan have never been a team to defend endlessly, but they have been a team who has stuck to their strength. They do not need 60% possession to win the match, just what is required to score an away goal first. Milan have taken the art of defending to another level altogether and Barcelona fans will still remember Messi’s frustration at being tackled by the artist known as Nesta. Milan might go in with a 4-3-3 like the first leg, turning into a 4-5-1 to styme Barcelona’s marauding full-backs.
The fact that Milan’s Giampaolo Pazzini has been ruled out for Tuesday’s tie offers little to no consolation to the Alzugrana. Though Pazzini has enjoyed a fine season with AC Milan thus far, his input in the first leg was somewhat subdued as he aided his team’s cause with a more defensive contribution. A player who appears to relish facing the Blaugrana is Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Ghanian international was instrumental in Milan’s first leg victory and haunted Barcelona in the past. At 1.85m, he’s more than just a match for Barcelona’s midfield and defence. Also a problem is his all-action style which finds him all over the pitch. The Alzugrana have yet to find a way to limit his influence.
Moreover, should the Milanese outfit chose to employ a more ‘open’ approach by fielding the likes of Robinho, Bojan and Stephan El Sharaawy, Barcelona will face a different set of problems. Under different circumstances this particular trio could play for Barcelona as the three players are more in the mold of the Catalans – tricky, skillful with an eye for goal. With Dani Alves and Jordi Alba bombing up and down the flanks, their constant foray leaves Barcelona’s central defence overexposed and vulnerable to rapid counter-attacks.
Expect more of the same tactics from Massimiliano Allegri’s charges that served them well in Milan.
Probable Line-Up (4-3-1-2): Abbiati(GK); Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant; Ambrosini, Montolivo, Muntari; Boateng; Robinho, El Sharaawy
- Barcelona have failed to score in their last two Champions League games for the first time since April 2008.
- AC Milan’s last victory against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the Champions League was in September 2000 (2-0). Since then, they’ve had two draws and two defeats.
- AC Milan have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last eight away games in the Champions League.
- Lionel Messi only made one touch inside the opposition box in the first leg and didn’t get a single shot on target.
- Stephan El Shaarawy has been directly involved in four of Milan’s last eight goals in the Champions League (two goals, two assists).
Stats Courtesy Yahoo! Eurosport
Players to Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
Having scored in 17 consecutive La Liga fixtures, the mercurial Argentine has established a new world-record. However, his record against Italian sides is rather underwhelming (3 goals in 8 games), and it’s safe to assume that he is itching to set the record straight. All eyes will be on Messi in this game and it is pretty much an open secret that Barcelona would be looking to draw inspiration from him if it is to be a special night at Camp Nou.
FC Barcelona 3 – 1 AC Milan
Taking all into account, Barcelona remains the favorite to win the match but not the overall tie. A solitary strike courtesy of the Rossoneri at any point during the game would put progression to the next round out of reach for the Blaugrana.
Blast from the Past
Catch out resident authors going head to head in a verbal duel ahead of the big game here.