Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Back to the San Siro

It's been a while since I wrote about the Catalan Futbol Colllective and we are coming down to the business end of the season, so this seems like as good a time as any to spill a few words.  Barca go to Milan for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.  This is not an unfamiliar venue, as Barca played Milan at the San Siro in late November, taking a 3-2 decision that cemented first place in the group.  That win allowed Barca to play Bayer Leverkusen - a team that was more interested in getting Leo Messi's shirt than actually trying to tackle him - instead of Arsenal in the round of 16.  In addition, Barca played at the San Siro against Inter twice in 2009-10 (a 0-0 draw and then the famous 3-1 defeat to Mourinho's Inter that led to Ibra's now-famous "you have no balls!" insult directed at Pep Guardiola) and once against Milan in 2006 (a famous 0-1 win in the Champions League semifinals en route to Barca winning their first Champions League title in 14 years).  In short, the San Siro is a familiar place for Barca and most of their memories there have been happy ones.*  It's certainly better than playing Milan in Athens.

* - Along with Tiger Stadium (the one in Baton Rouge), the San Siro is my favorite backdrop for a televised sporting event.  The design is distinctive, the mist/smoke that envelops the place during a match gives it an otherworldly quality, and the noise is outstanding because of the vertical stands.  It's not always full, but it will be tonight.

In terms of this match-up, Milan present a pair of weaknesses that Barca should be able to exploit.  First, Milan don't have the type of aggressive defensive midfielders who can give Barca trouble.  Massimiliano Allegri, the Milan manager, said that his team is more "technical" than physical, but there is no team in the world that can compete with Barca on technical ability.  While teams have had some joy coming out and attacking Barca this year, no longer afraid of putting pressure on Barca's defenders (Real have had success with this approach), this Milan side doesn't have the front players for that sort of task.  After all, if you cut away all of the bullshit from Zlatan, the big reason why his stay in Catalunya was so short was that he was a bad fit in this Barca side because he isn't much on pressing opposing defenders when not in possession.  If Robinho is his partner, then you have another player who isn't exactly know for his work-rate.  Thus, the two favorable approaches to playing Barca - parking a narrow bus to congest the middle or pressing Barca at the back to force turnovers - seem to both be beyond Milan's grasp.

Second, Milan have weak fullbacks.  If you don't believe me, read The Guardian's minute-by-minute of Arsenal's demolition of Milan in the round of 16 at the Emirates.  Some highlights:

24 min: Arsenal attack down Milan's right flank again, having clearly identified Milan left-back Djamel Mesbah as a weak link. The link-up play between Song, Gervinho and Walcott is marvellous, releasing ... oh my word!

39 min: Theo Walcott sets off on a gallop down the right flank and is taken out by beleaguered full-back Djamel Mesbah, who he's been tormenting all night. The Arsenal winger goes down holding his thigh, but is fit to continue after receiving treatment.

44 min: You'd have to say Arsenal are the favourites to win this tie at this stage, as long as they don't lose the run of themselves and forget to defend stoutly. They've been making hay down the right wing, where the visitors' left-back Djamel Mesbah looks like some supporter who's won a competition where first prize was the opportunity to play for AC Milan in a Champions League match. He's having a shocker.

Second half: And we're off ... there don't appear to be any changes on either side. That seems odd to me, as I'd suggest Milan would be better off playing with 10 man rather than 11 including Djamel Mesbah.

54 min: Theo Walcott picks up the ball on the right flank, waltzes past the hapless Djamel Mesbah and tries to square the ball across the face of the Milan goal. At the near post, Thiago Silva clears.

88 min: Milan substitution: Djamel Mesbah gets put out of his misery and walks off very slowly - his first worthwhile contribution to his team's cause this evening. He's replaced by Daniele Bonera.
While the La Masia has struggled to produce top defenders in recent years, it has had no such issues producing tricky wingers.  Thus, Guardiola has Pedro, Isaac Cuenca, and Cristian Tello to throw at Milan's fullbacks, not to mention Alexis Sanchez and the now-fit Ibrahim Affelay.  If Barca's play-makers - Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi - have time to operate between the defense and midfield, then they will be able to find the wingers cutting in behind the fullbacks all day.  Additionally, the wingers ought to be able to beat the fullbacks and put passes into the box.

Against all of this, Barca's big weakness is at the back.  With Eric Abidal out for the year and possibly having to retire because of his impending liver transplant and Adriano also injured, Barca don't have depth at fullback.  Additionally, Gerard Pique's form has dipped this year, leading to all sorts of analogies between his girlfriend Shakira and Yoko Ono (or, if you are a Man United fan, Posh Spice).  Milan have terrific attackers.  If they can get the ball to their forwards (the big question in this match), then I don't have the same confidence in Barca's defenders that I have had in recent years.  I have this mental image of Pique deploying his befuddled face as Zlatan wheels away to the corner flag to celebrate a vindicating goal. 

In the end, this match doesn't give me too much heartburn.  Barca have been playing better in recent weeks, winning nine in a row since the loss at Osasuna.  Additionally, Barca's overall problem this year has been one of focus, as they have dropped points on the road against a number of lesser opponents.  In the toughest road games - two matches at the Bernabeu, one at the San Siro, and one at the Calderon (where they never win - they have won every time.  There are teams out there that will give the Blaugrana fits - Chelsea looked ominous last night with their ability to negate Benfica and then ground out an ugly 0-1 win - but this Milan side do not look to be one of them.

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