Manchester United - AC Milan
Overall, it was a fantastic game. I wish that more teams had the guts that Milan and United have to attack one another in a really big game. I expected beforehand that United would play relatively defensively to make sure that their improvisational backline got plenty of protection (similar to what Barcelona did in the first leg at Benfica last year when they were forced to play Motta and Oleguer as their central defense pairing because of injuries and suspensions to Puyol, Marquez, and Edmilson). Instead, United came after Milan and the Rossonieri came right back at them, dispelling the notion that all Italian sides are boring and defensive.
That said, Milan also dispelled the notion that Italian sides know how to hold a lead. Normally, the Italians blow leads because they get too defensive and allow their opponents unlimited possession of the ball. (See: Italy-France '00 or Italy-South Korea '02.) In this instance, Milan kept coming and generated a couple good chances for Kaka in the early second half. Instead, the game swung when Rino Gattuso was hurt in minute 52. I'm of the opinion that defensive midfielders are the most underrated and necessary figures in modern football and last night's game was a textbook example. After Gattuso left the pitch, United was able to eschew the attacks down the flanks that had led to so little. Instead, they came right down the middle for the tying and winning goals. (Paolo Maldini's absence didn't hurt matters, either.) Additionally, Milan was suddenly deprived of possession because their ball-winner was gone. It was like dropping the base guitar out of a Rolling Stones song.
It was mystefying to me that Tommy Smyth kept criticizing Milan for taking their foot off the gas without once mentioning that Milan had lost two critical players to injury in a matter of minutes and were now hamstrung in defending and getting possession. With all the focus on United's injuries, it escaped Smyth's attention that Milan had problems as well. And with two of their best players off the pitch, Milan suffered because of two of their weaker players. Dida has always been on-again, off-again between the sticks and Tuesday night was no exception. On the one hand, he made an absolute world-class save on a second half shot from Darren Fletcher. On the other hand, his positioning on United's first goal was bad, as he was in no man's land, and his positioning on Wayne Rooney's winner was atrocious. And at least Dida gave his team something. At the other end of the pitch, Alberto Gilardino gave Milan absolutely nothing. Gilardino has proven time and again that he's not up to the biggest stage. If Pippo Inzaghi isn't starting for Milan next week, I'll be shocked.
As good as United-Milan was, Chelsea-Liverpool was that bad. These teams should be banned from playing one another outside of the EPL. They both play on the counter, waiting for the other team to commit too many players forward. When two teams play that way, the result is mind-numbing boredom. (France and Italy come to mind in this regard. They can play perfectly entertaining games when they play opponents that take risks, but when they play one another, nothing happens. It's no accident that their three big games in the last decade have ended 0-0, 1-1, and 1-1 after 120 minutes.) If you ask me what happened in the last five minutes of the first half, I won't be able to tell you because I fell asleep. If you ask what happened in the last ten minutes of the second half, I won't be able to tell you anything other than that Shaun Wright-Phillips shot the ball into Row Z because I got annoyed and started fast-forwarding.
In a weird way, I guess you have to credit Jose Mourinho for figuring what works best for his team - endless longballs to Didier Drogba - and basing his strategy around that. Most managers, when given all the options that Mourinho has, would try to do too much by incorporating all the different attacking options. Not Jose. Entertainment be damned, he knows that his team can grind out 1-0 results by hoisting the ball up to Drogba and then letting Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, and Andriy Shevchenko make runs off of him. You can't take anything Jose says seriously, but he does know how to win. And my appreciation for Petr Cech only increased after his outstanding save on the one chance that Liverpool generated all game.
The game only increased my contempt for the current iteration of Liverpool. Their strategy appeared to be to funnel the ball down the left wing to Boudewijn Zenden, who hasn't been good since the Third Place Game in the '98 World Cup. Predictably, that led to a series of crosses that Paolo Ferreira blocked easily. Additionally, the ball remained on the side opposite from where Steven Gerrard was playing, which makes perfect sense since most teams like to keep the ball away from their best player. When the ball wasn't being wasted on the left wing, Craig Bellamy was busy being the biggest prick on grass and Dirk Kujt was busy causing me to long for the days when the Dutch produced good players.
And like an idiot, I'm sure I'll watch the second leg between two teams I can't stand as they do their best to rival Norway-Ireland '94 for the most boring game in the history of football.