It was a big deal when Arsenal turned AC Milan over at the San Siro in 2008.
Since then, Milan’s last two European Cup campaigns have now both seen home defeats to English sides. On neither occasion could they complain.
In the mid-noughties, when they were a fixture in the latter rounds of the competition, their midfield was both authorative and entertaining. The strength, brains and shooting power of Seedorf. The composed, casual string-pulling of Pirlo. The crazed tenacity of Gatusso. And, of course, the rare skills of Kaka, for a time the world’s best player.
In last season’s meek surrender to United, and in this season’s impotent first leg performance against Spurs, the most glaring problem has been in midfield.
Against United, in the home leg, Leonardo fielded the accident-waiting-to-happen midfield trio of Beckham, Ambrosini and Pirlo, to back up a very attcking front three (Ronaldinho-Pato-Huntelaar). You didn’t need to be a supposedly top-level manager to see that such a team was going to be overrun.
Strangely enough, Milan actually dominated the first half, a wretched United perhaps overly mindful of recent, fruitless trips to the San Siro. But once Ferguson’s side got their act together in the second half, things suddenly looked very easy, and Rooney plundered two goals to add to Scholes’ fortunate first half equaliser.
This time around, the problem has been reversed. Against United, the problem was a lack of legs. Against Spurs, Milan had Flamini, Gattuso and Thiago, three destroyers, but none of the guile that a Pirlo or even a Beckhman can provide. With Seedorf withdrawn at half time, and Pato introduced, again they were left with an isolated front three, reluctant to track back and unable to establish a rapport with either of the blue-arsed flies who tried ineffectively to join them from midfield.
Robinho and Zlatan tried and failed to provide a moment of magic. Tellingly, Milan’s two best chances came from set plays. Gomes twice repelled Yepes headers. But in open play, there was zero creativity. Spurs defended narrowly and in depth, and their opponents could not conjure a dangerous cross or even get into position to attempt one.
The game degenerated into an ill-tempered slugfest. Mad dog Flamini launched into a heroically stupid two-footed lunge that claimed the ball but sent Corluka flying. The Croatian had to be replaced- Gallas shifting to right back to accommodate the returning Woodgate- but still Spurs remained unruffled. Gattuso clashed with Joe Jordan on the touchline, and Crouch on the pitch, trying desperately to inspire his teammates.
The visitors had abandoned the adventure of the first half in favour of sitting back and soaking up Milan’s predictable attacks, and the game looked destined for ultimate deadlock, until Lennon sped away on the break, roasted the flailing Yepes at the edge of the box, and cooly slipped a pass across Nesta to Crouch, who could barely miss. His scuff was well-placed and Spurs had the away goal.
It was an assured, mature performance from Spurs, but it is sad to see a giant like Milan performing so poorly in Europe’s premier competition, illustrating the weakness of European football in general. Spurs may see evidence that they continue to close the gap on the big guns in England – it seems likely that they will be the only North London team in the next round – but they have not had to negotiate the learning curve that this competition demanded of both Manchester United and Arsenal in the past.
Most of the spending power and squad strength is centred on a very small pool of teams. Harry Redknapp projects an underdog image but Spurs have been spending big and buying in bulk for a long time. Some might say they are overachieving now; I would argue that they were underachieving before.