Wednesday night was expected to be a ferocious encounter between two European giants, and goals appeared a certainty. Barcelona have been in devastating form this term, and Milan are no strangers to finding the net either. Before the first leg, Barcelona had netted in 29 consecutive games, not to mention the last two times these sides met in the group stages it finished 3-2 at the San Siro and 2-2 at Camp Nou. However, it was a thriller of a different sort as Barcelona maintained their champagne football but couldn’t get in behind what a well drilled Milan rearguard. Daniele Bonera and Alessandro Nesta rolled back the years with solid displays, while goalkeeper Christian Abbiati and midfielder Massimo Ambrosini were also in fine form. It’s easy to see why Milan have had such a good campaign in Serie A this season. Meanwhile, when Barcelona did show glimpses of their wonderful fluid play, Xavi was always involved. The Barcelona skipper’s passing was immaculate throughout and it was his neat interplay with Lionel Messi in the 25th minute that nearly fashioned a goal-scoring opportunity from nowhere.
Despite 18 goals in nine games, and recently breaking Barcelona’s all time goal record, not to mention hitting a Champions League record five goals in the second leg against Bayer Leverkusen, Lionel Messi was thwarted by Milan’s defence. The Argentine magician was frustrated throughout as the Serie A outfited doubled and even trebled up on the forward, doing whatever was necessary to prevent Barcelona’s talisman from scoring. After an initial surge by Milan in the opening minutes, the Spanish champions took control, with Xavi central to all things good for the Catalan giants. He pulled the strings but it was Messi who held the key to unlocking the Milan defence. However, for once Messi couldn’t deliver. He was still sublime and by no means a weak link in Pep Guardiola’s side, but it’s just the standards the Argentine has set for himself that has left him in such a situation.
When Uefa decided to introduce the fifth official into European competition, we were told it was to assist the referee in making decisions in and around the penalty area. But once again this was proven not to be the case as at least two clear cut penalty opportunities were passed up by the officials at the San Siro – perhaps unwilling to take on the responsibility of making a big call. The unfortunate referee Jonas Eriksen was confronted by the Barcelona players who may felt hard done by in the 15th minute, when Alexis Sanchez looked to have been taken down by the on-rushing Abbiati after a smart set-piece routine. Replays showed that the Barcelona forward’s legs had been clipped as he looked to get past the keeper, however there was no action from the fifth official. He remained unmoved as the Barcelona players surrounded the referee in protest. Similarly, in the second half when a corner was swung in, Carles Puyol was first to get his head on to the ball very nearly scoring in the process. Yet on closer inspection Milan substitute Djamel Mesbah had his hands all over the Spanish defender – another stone-wall penalty. No decision was given as the ball rolled out for a goal-kick and the fifth official had once again failed to take charge of the situation.
There were many underlying factors entering into Wednesday’s game with a huge spotlight being placed on the competing leagues in Europe. The kings of Spanish and European football were entering into the home of the conquerors of Italy trying to prove a point. It was a game to establish which league is better: Serie A or the Primera Liga – the Premier League was far from the thoughts of any footballing mind. The fact that Milan were able to secure a draw with Barcelona for the second time in three games only gives more substance to the argument that English football has never been so far off the pace. Last May we saw how Barcelona were able to rip a Manchester United side to shreds on their way to European glory. Another Spanish side in the shape of Athletic Biblao were comfortable victors against the Red Devils in the Europa League. Furthermore, Manchester City, who are providing the only opposition to United’s 20th league title, were also dumped out in the group stages by Napoli. The failure of the English sides in Europe this season has only served as a reminder of the diminishing state of the Premier League.
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