Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat against Milan at San Siro leaves them needing to score three times in the return leg at Camp Nou against just about the most defensively organised side they have faced all season. Despite monopolising possession yesterday evening, Barca were barely able to fashion any clear-cut chances against well-organised opponents who soaked up the pressure and hit them with two killer blows.
The lack of an away goal worsens the Catalans’ plight still, after a game in which they struggled to make an impact in spite of the time they spent with the ball. Milan consistently frustrated Barca throughout the 90 minutes, successfully isolating the ineffective Cesc Fabregas, nullifying the creative threat of Andres Iniesta and even subduing the normally ebullient Lionel Messi.
The pre-match hype had virtually written off Milan, without a home victory in European competition for a year, and made Barcelona odds-on favourites. The Catalans were unbeaten in seven matches against their opponents, whose last success came in the 2004-05 group stage, Andriy Shevchenko scoring in a 1-0 win for the Rossoneri.
History counted for nothing, however, as Milan suffocated the supply to Messi and eventually took hold of the game when they realised that Barca’s endlessly artful build-up play had no end product.
With the San Siro pitch cutting up badly, adding to Milan’s ability to disrupt Barca’s passing rhythm, Jordi Roura reshuffled his pack and adopted a more direct approach after a goalless first half. Iniesta moved to a more central role, but there was little noticeable difference, with Barca’s creativity being snuffed out and loose passes creeping into their play.
Milan blunted the Barca midfield and cut off the supply to the attack, but Barcelona’s fundamental problem at the moment is that they are regularly conceding goals. The defeat in Milan was their 10th consecutive failure to keep a clean sheet. Conceding in three of their six group games also, the vulnerability to counter-attacks and at set pieces was as evident last night as it had been at Celtic Park back in November.
The last time Barca failed to score this season was at home to Benfica in their final group stage match, by which time progression had already been secured. Scoring goals in large numbers has not been a problem for the Catalans in La Liga, so it is rarely of any great concern if the odd goal is conceded. In fact, Barca have let in eight in their last six Primera matches, but have scored 19 at the other end.
However, it is one thing to come from a goal behind to beat Granada, as Barca did last weekend, to hit Getafe for six or put five past struggling Osasuna, and quite another to adopt similarly expansive tactics with the expectation of goals against one of the tightest defences in Europe. Attack begins in defence and the signals are there that Carles Puyol – hero that he has been over many years – and Gerard Pique may no longer be up to the task when tested by the best.
There may have been more than a hint of handball about Milan’s first goal, but all Barca got out of it was a yellow card for Pique for his protests. Then it seemed all too easy when substitute M’Baye Niang forced Puyol off the ball and neatly knocked it to Stephan El Shaarawy to set up Sulley Muntari for the Italians’ second. That also added to Barca’s frustration and rattled them visibly in a manner rarely seen.
Barca’s natural game was spectacularly derailed by a Milan side that kept rigidly to their plan of defending deep and catching the visitors on the break. If the Rossoneri should secure an early away goal at Camp Nou, the four-time European Champions would need to score four. You would not bet against the possibility of either, but the Italians will not be starting as underdogs.