Seven-times European champions and 18-times winners of the Italian league, AC Milan are rarely cast as underdogs, yet they thrived in the role on their way to Wednesday's shock 2-0 Champions League win over Barcelona.
Despite playing at home in front of a 75,000 crowd, coach
Massimiliano Allegri was clearly aware of his team's limitations and accepted that his side would have to concede most of the possession to Barcelona.
The Catalans had enjoyed 65 percent of the ball before Milan opened the scoring in the 57th minute, just as Allegri had predicted they would before the match. But, rather like Chelsea in last year's semifinal, Milan managed to nullify Barcelona's attacked by pulling all their players back into the last third of the defence, creating an almost impenetrable barrier.
It worked remarkably well and not even the combination of Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi could find a way through.
"It was an extraordinary game from a defensive point of view as we didn't concede anything to Barcelona," Allegri said.
A season which started disastrously has suddenly come good for Milan as Allegri coaxes the best out of group of players who many thought would struggle to compete both domestically and in Europe.
Allegri's future was the subject of almost weekly speculation back in September and October, yet the unflappable coach is now the hero of the hour after his side became only the second this season to prevent Barcelona from scoring.
Wednesday's rapturous celebrations were a far cry from the opening Champions League match of the season when Milan were booed off the pitch at a half-empty San Siro after being held 0-0 by Anderlecht.
Forced to sell players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic to cut costs, Milan failed to win a home game in their group and their total of eight points was the lowest of any of the teams in the last 16. Yet the club appear to have spent wisely in the transfer market and players such as Kevin Constant, playmaker Riccardo Montolivo and teenage forward M'Baye Niang have all turned out to be astute signings.
Milan, who failed to win in their previous seven meetings with Barcelona, fired an early warning shot when Muntari went close with a dipping 30-metre volley which flew over the crossbar after five minutes.El Shaarawy should have done better when he was sent clear by Kevin-Prince Boateng's flicked pass but failed to control the ball as he raced towards goal, allowing Carles Puyol to intercept.
Barca, who could have had a penalty when Dani Alves' whipped cross clearly hit Philippe Mexes' outstretched arm, took control with their familiar slick passing. Barca now have everything to play for in the return leg on March 12.
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