Scouting report: Milan put up wall as Barca fire blanks at San Siro
21:35 GMT, 28 March 2012
They rescued a lost cause in the last round and defied expectation in Lisbon on Tuesday, but Chelsea were left in no doubt on Wednesday night that their toughest test in this season’s Champions League still awaits them.
Barcelona or AC Milan are next, and on the evidence of a compelling first encounter in the San Siro, Chelsea will have their work cut out like never before if they get through against Benfica.
The intricate passing moves and lightning Lionel Messi surges will be familiar enough to interim boss Roberto Di Matteo, but Barcelona appear to have added set-piece ingenuity to their long list of attributes.
Always a danger: Lionel Messi (right) caused AC Milan problems
Milan were certainly caught unawares by a routine that almost led to a 16th-minute breakthrough. Dani Alves’ long run-up for a 30-yard free-kick pointed to an ambitious attempt at goal but quickly turned into a ruse to unhinge Milan’s defence, as Xavi took responsibility at the last moment with a pass to Sergio Busquets on the edge of the area.
Milan’s defenders remained static, as Alexis Sanchez took Busquets’ first-time flick in his stride and bore down on goal. The Barca forward was unlucky not to win a penalty, after being upended by keeper Christian Abbiati, but the lesson for Chelsea was clear. The Catalan stylists’ strengths may be apparent to anyone, but the capacity to surprise is never far away.
Claim: Alexis Sanchez could have been awarded a penalty for Barcelona
If they have a fault, it may be the occasional tendency to over-elaborate, as was evident in the 32nd minute when Andres Iniesta’s pinpoint pass picked out Sanchez, through on goal near the penalty spot. Control with one foot and dispatch with the other would have been any normal striker’s response, but that was too simple. Sanchez instead opted to backheel to Xavi on the edge of the area, and it cost Barca a goal, as the midfielder’s shot was blocked.
Barca lacked a cutting edge in a first half in which they dominated possession, but the dizzying speed of their passing was evident again in the 26th minute, when Iniesta and Xavi sliced through Milan’s cover, and Messi supplied the final touch for Xavi to draw a diving save out.
And what of Milan Robinho is well known to English audiences and has not lost his ability to infuriate. A figure who frustrated more than enthralled in his days with Manchester City, he had Milan fans howling their displeasure after ballooning over from eight yards in the third minute.
Denied: Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed the best chance of the game for Milan
They are known as an ageing team, and were almost creaking after restoring 36-year-old Alessandro Nesta alongside Philippe Mexes in defence, but held out under Barca pressure.
Mystery continues to surround Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s standing as one of Europe’s most revered strikers. To English audiences, it does, anyway.
To hear continental observers eulogising leaves us wondering whether we missed something along the way, and both sides of Ibrahimovic were on show.
A sleight of foot to shake off Gerard Pique near the left corner was inspired, but he wasted Milan’s best first-half chance by shooting too close to Victor Valdes after being played through by Clarence Seedorf.
Honours even going into next Tuesday’s second leg.