Champions League: Harsh lessons for AC Milan, Arsenal
As he trudged off the Camp Nou pitch towards the players' tunnel with the half-time whistle ringing in his ears, Christian Abbiati could have been forgiven for turning back nostalgically, sweep his eyes over the departing Barcelona players and mutter to himself, "You know, that used to be us".
Abbiati had just been at the receiving end of a brilliant first half blitz by Barcelona, when the Milan players on the pitch could as well have been orange cones used in practice. The Barca players moved about the pitch in a million intricate triangles, with the opposition almost an afterthought. Milan could have prised the ball off the Ladislao Kubala statue commissioned just outside the Camp Nou with more ease, than regain possession from the hosts.
It was as tough as Liverpool had found to get the ball off Milan themselves in the 2005 Champions League final. "At halftime," Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard recalled, "I thought I was going to be in tears at the final whistle".
Milan had eviscerated Liverpool in the opening 45 minutes, going 3-0 up in Istanbul thanks to some sublime football. Hernan Crespo, the Argentinean striker, had already picked up a brace while Ricky Kaka had ran riot from the middle of the park. Liverpool finally found a toehold in the game only after Rafael Benitez had roused Dietmar Hamann from the bench and put him on Kaka after half-time.
Abbiati was on the bench for that match but he's been at Milan since 1998 and has been first-choice 'keeper for many of their seasons. After Massimo Ambrosini, Abbiati is the one at Milan with the most caps for the club (231).
Barcelona's first half display against Milan, which yielded two goals, both by Lionel Messi, has already been hailed as probably their best performance in recent years - and that includes rousing performances in Champions League finals, semifinals and El Classicos. It was as if someone had decreed that the pitch ended at the halfway line marking the start of Barca's half, effectively reducing the pitch in half. Barca camped out in the Milan half for almost the entire first half, and even then, Milan barely got a kick.
When they did manage to break away, M'Baye Niang hit the post when he was open on goal with only Victor Valdes to beat. The trio of Xavi Hernandez-Andres Iniesta-Lionel Messi was leaving their Italian aristocrats in a daze, opening them up with rapier-like movements and generally giving Abbiati hell. Going into the match, Milan had to score just once, which would have meant Barca would need four goals to qualify for the quarters. (Milan had won the first leg at home 2-0.) Barca kept their end of the deal. Milan didn't.
More than 1,000 kilometres away in Munich, Germany, Arsene Wenger must have been reminded of another brilliant first half display, another flashback to a more promising time. Almost exactly a year ago in March 2012, a Robin Van Persie-led Arsenal raced to a 3-0 lead by half-time against Milan in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16. After losing the first leg 0-4 to Milan, however, Arsenal could not muster the fourth goal needed to force the game into extra-time, and were eliminated.
"You know that if you play 180 minutes and you miss 90, it is difficult at that level. We were very close," Wenger had said after the loss to Milan. What he said last March could just as easily apply this year too. Arsenal simply failed to turn up during the first leg against Bayern Munich in the Round of 16 this year, conceding a 0-2 lead at home within 21 minutes. They never really recovered.
When Olivier Giroud slammed in Arsenal's opener as early as the fourth minute of the second league against Bayern, Wenger didn't care to celebrate. In his customary navy blue shirt and dark blue suit, he remained seated in the 'away' dugout, intently observing the happenings on the pitch. He hurried to the touchline later in the game, stuffed his hands in his pockets and angrily berated Giroud when the same player scuffed a golden chance to put Arsenal three goals up.
Wenger had dropped his captain, Thomas Vermalaen, and first-choice goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, for this tie. He wanted this result, he needed this win. But a win alone was not enough -- he needed a three goal margin for Arsenal to go through to the quarterfinals. Arsenal did not get it against Bayern but they might have got something else on Tuesday: the belief that they can still stand up against the best, and beat them.
Well begun, as the saying goes, is half done. But as both Milan and Arsenal will realise, it's still only half done.
More about Arun Pradeep
Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
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