Conservatism reigns in Milan-Barca draw

Posted by Ben Gladwell

MILAN -- "This," said Fabio Capello after AC Milan's 4-0 win over Barcelona in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final in Athens, "is perfection." Perfection, or something near to that, was what the Rossoneri required on their fourth home meeting with the Blaugrana in just under two years, but almost inevitably, they failed to find it.

That night, Milan president Silvio Berlusconi was forming his first Italian government. It lasted only eight months. His more recent term as prime minister ended on 12 November 2011. He would have resigned the night before, had Milan not been in action against Barcelona, going down 3-2 at home.

Notice a trend? Milan's finest moments against the Catalans have gone hand in hand with the glories of their president. Conversely, Berlusconi's personal lows have coincided with his team's woes. With the president banned from public office for two years earlier this week, the writing was already on the wall for Il Diavolo.

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Only one of the recent three San Siro meetings had ended in the home side's favour too. That -- a 2-0 win in February -- proved to be a dangerous victory, stinging Barca to hit back with a comprehensive, in more ways than one, 4-0 triumph at the Camp Nou, eliminating Milan from the competition for the second season running.

The stakes were admittedly not so high this time. Like in their November 2011 group stage meeting, nothing would be decided either here or in Catalonia, but that was not to say the game had no value, even if the 1-1 scoreline suggested there was not such a strong desire to form a majority party, but more a coalition destined to qualify together from Group H.

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Both sides laid out their policies with a triumvirate that lacked the one element at most risk of extinction in the modern game -- a striker. Milan perhaps more for the fear of not being able to feed a front man, Barca due to their proven ability not to require one. Lionel Messi, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez pose a big enough threat coming from deep, latching on to the Catalans' slick passing game, a philosophy preserved under their new coach, Gerardo Martino.

Mario Balotelli was left on the bench by Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri, caution the key in that decision, on the one hand since the Italy international returned to training only on Monday after recovering from a thigh injury, and on the other hand to permit a three-man attacking midfield.

Rather than looking like they were playing without forwards, though, Milan made it seem like they had three of them on the field as they surged out of the traps, Kaka earning a corner after only 1 minute and 20 seconds which already nearly brought the house down. Just the sight of Kaka warming up had brought the fans to their feet an hour before kickoff, so you could imagine the roar when, thanks to a neat exchange of passes with the Brazilian, Robinho put the hosts in front.

The goal stung Barca, just like February's 2-0 result. Milan retreated and, all of a sudden, it was no surprise to see Kaka back robbing Messi of possession deep in his own third of the field. The hosts were always ready to break when they regained possession, but they lacked their early verve, and Barca sensed as much.

The one time Messi slipped off the radar, picked out by the one man who knows where he moves blindly, Andres Iniesta, Milan were punished. When his spot showed up again, and Kevin Constant and Riccardo Montolivo were there to surround him, he was still able to stumble before placing his shot nonchalantly past Marco Amelia.

Barca were getting warmed up. Another searching pass from Iniesta picked out Alexis Sanchez, who provided a weak finish. Sergio Busquets threaded a pass through for Messi, Cristian Zapata this time doing enough to put the Argentinean off before, on the stroke of halftime, Neymar's perfectly executed volley caressed the outside of the far post.

The halftime whistle came as a relief to Milan.

Nearly 20 years ago, Capello gave all 11 of his men 10 out of 10 for their tactical master class. Allegri may have managed an 8 at best for Kaka, but the Brazilian did not have the fuel to move up a notch or go the distance and was withdrawn in the 70th minute with the game still finely poised.

The desire to make Barca coach Johan Cruyff eat his prematch words was largely behind Milan's inspirational '94 triumph. The Dutchman was photographed holding the Champions League trophy before the final took place, underlining his belief that his side merely needed to turn up to take it home with them.

The same incentive was ultimately lacking on Tuesday, and as the minutes passed, a communal sense of satisfaction with a point prevailed. Not even substitute Balotelli, scorpion kick in midfield aside, could provide a much-needed spark to a game which soon lost its way.

Iniesta could muster only a weak shot from Xavi Hernandez's ball; Messi volleyed an Iniesta backheel over. Adriano shot wide from Neymar's delivery while Robinho, for a reason known only to him, let a Kevin Constant cross filter through his legs with only Victor Valdes to beat. Parity was impenetrable.

The two teams will head to the ballots again in a fortnight's time with the distinct prospect of another hung parliament. Perfection will have to wait.

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