Milan coach Max Allegri left Mario Balotelli on the bench as Milan were comprehensively beaten in a game where they showed little attacking intent.
There was perhaps some method behind the madness of leaving Mario Balotelli on the bench against Barcelona by Max Allegri. Maybe he wanted to inspire the ex Man City star into action after some recent indifferent performances. The Italian maestro hasn’t been in the best form of late, but whilst many innately seem to blame “laziness”, there might be a much deeper problem plaguing the Rossoneri with Balotelli being made a convenient scapegoat. The sale of players like Pato and Kevin Prince Boateng has left Milan’s attacking threat somewhat toothless this season. The Milanese giants have won only 3 of their opening 11 fixtures and scored a measly 17 goals in the process. Having suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss at home to Fiorentina at the weekend, the fans would’ve wanted Allegri to adopt a more positive approach against Barca. It was thus strange to see him drop their best chance of a goal and field a team which had in effect only two pronounced attacking options in Kaka and Robinho. Even more strange was the choice of Robinho as a target man. Perhaps dropping Balotelli for Niang would’ve been a better option if he needed a target man. Allegri though probably thought better of it given the importance of the fixture and the decision’s possible impact on squad dynamics not to mention the effect on his relationship with Balotelli.
With Robinho predictably ineffective for large parts of the 1st half, Milan were static at the back, like rocks on a beach they were constantly hit by wave after wave of Barca attacks. Alexis Sanchez nearly converted one such attack when he failed to meet an Adriano cross earlier on. Milan couldn’t hold one for long. Barca went ahead through a Messi penalty at the half hour mark when Neymar was brought down by Ignazio Abate in the box. There was no fire in the Milan players at this point. No one grabbed the ball, racing back to the half way line to firmly plant the ball demanding an immediate restart. Instead players wandered back almost accepting defeat even at that early stage.
Riccardo Montolivo did give the fans a glimmer of hope on 35 minutes when his shot curled wide of the Barca goal but it was false hope. Messi was increasingly threatening to carve open the defence and nearly did on a few occasion. It wasn’t long before the home side extended their lead through a Xavi freekick which Sergio Busquets headed home without incident. Milan had probably practiced the defensive drill from a free kick on the training ground numerous times. Push out quick and catch the opposition offside was the plan. Alas it was executed poorly, replays did suggest that Busquets was off side but the goal stood. They also suggested that a few of the Milan players failed to clear their lines as practiced.
It must have been a sad sight for Milan fans to see their side struggle in such a way, but once again they were given hope just before half time. Kaka turn back time for a few moments showing that old burst of acceleration on the left wing. Having left Danny Alves in his wake the Brazillian ace drilled a low pass across the nearpost only to see it deflected into the net by Gerard Pique.
As expected Allegri brought on Balotelli after half time and the 23 year old made an immediate impact. His presence in the box and intelligent movement off the ball nearly had him clean through on goal via a Kaka pass, only for Javier Mascherano to make a last ditch interception. Soon afterwards the Italian forward forced Victor Valdes into make a good save from a venomous strike from the right.
Milan’s veteran keeper Christian Abbiati then pulled off a couple of brilliant saves from Iniesta and Sanchez to keep his team in the contest. It nearly paid off as Balotelli used his electric pace to coast past two Barcelona defenders on the right before crossing low for Kaka who narrowly missed from a tight angle under pressure from Daniel Alves.
Nigel De Jong, who’s been in fine form recently was one of the main reasons why the score line remained respectable on the night. His understated, tireless work rate may be invisible on the stats sheet but countless times he made crucial interceptions against Neymar and Messi, without which Barca may have scored a few more goals. Thanks to his defensive work, Milan still had hope and soon made another chance to level the score but Mascherano intercepted a pass which prevented a certain goal for Muntari. Valdez desperately cleared the resultant stray ball to safety.
Neymar also showed in the second half glimpses of his genius with a few mouth watering runs but his end product was lacking. The introduction of Cesc Fabregas however finally ended Milan’s resolve. He combined superbly with Messi resulting in the Argentine bursting through to score his second with seven minutes to go, essentially ending the contest.
Whilst Barcelona qualified with the win, Milan still sit second and have a good chance of going through to the next phase. But if they harbour any ambitions however faint of going far in this year’s competition they desperately need Stephane El Shawaary back. With recent rumours linking him to Chelsea circulating and no sign of Milan signing another striker, the future does however look rather bleak for tifosi Rossoneri.
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Rana Malook is a sports writer for HITC. Why not tweet him @rararana.
image: © jeroen_bennink