Max Allegri sprung no surprises in his starting XI as Stephen El Shaarawy returned from a knee injury and was preferred to M’Baye Niang. The positioning of Kevin Prince-Boateng was the biggest talking point heading into the game and he operated on the right handside.
Jordi Roura picked an XI everyone expected for the visitors, after Xavi was pronounced fit, with only David Villa unavailable for selection.
This was an absolutely fantastic performance from Milan. To understand why they were able to accomplish what they did in the second half you need to have witnessed the foundation they laid down in the first.
The first 45 minutes was a clinic from a team playing Barcelona. In Kevin-Prince Boateng & Stephen El Shaaraway, Allegri had two players who were a threat when they had the ball but, more importantly, were defensively disciplined without it.
In effect, they played as wing backs, allowing the back four to squeeze together in a narrow line up against a centrally focused opponent. The longer the first half went, the more the likes of Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas stayed central. The centre-backs were terrific not sitting too deep, to allow space in between the lines, and maintaining concentration when not even having a specific man to mark in a forward position.
Watching Milan defend as well as they did is nothing new but what is new is this Milan and that makes it even more impressive. With the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Thiago Silva, Clarence Seedorf and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their side last season they caused Barcelona many in-game problems throughout their four encounters but many of those issues were forgotten by most when looking at the scorelines of 2-2, 2-3, 0-0 & 3-1.
Having changed personnel and gotten rid of the experience they had, just makes this Milan result even more impressive.
Aside from their transfers, the two biggest differences on this night, from last season, was how clinical Milan were with their finishing and how poor Barcelona were in stepping up the tempo. For all of their possession in the first half, there was a lack of speed in their pass, something that remained even when they went behind.
The goal that opened the scoring had some controversy on it but to focus on that would neglect the reason for it happening in the first place. Victor Valdes had an uncharacteristic long clearance up field and it was poor, allowing El Shaaraway to pounce and press immediately. Dani Alves then had to track back and again showed he isn’t great at defending when running towards his own goal, as he committed a silly foul on El Shaaraway. From the ensuing free kick, the ball hit Cristian Zapata’s hand but he had hardly any time to get out of the way before Boateng unleashed a wonderful strike past Valdes.
Barcelona’s issues remained at 1-0 until they removed the ineffective Fabregas for Alexis Sanchez. The former Arsenal man just never got any space to operate in against a disciplined backline and Sanchez was needed to provide vertical runs across the defence. His inclusion made a small difference but the visitors still rarely posed a threat to Christian Abbiati in the Milan goal.
The second goal, ten minutes from time, came via the same route as the first. From a throw-in by Jordi Alba, Milan’s midfield pressed immediately as the exceptional Massimo Ambrosini and Boateng closed down the Spaniard and then sent substitute M’Baye Niang into a flank vacated (once again) by an advancing full back. El Shaarawy (yes, he was everywhere) then lobbed the ball over to Sulley Muntari whose sweet left foot strike made it 2-0. It was a great, clinical goal and one that exposed Barcelona’s fragile defence. At the time, despite not playing well, they were only down by a goal but were far too open in the build up to the goal.
The San Siro erupted into a party and in the middle of it was Mario Balotelli who, like many in Milan this evening, will surely enjoy this night as they should. Allegri’s system was exceptional but it was a night for his players who put the plan in place what he drew up. The back four did exactly what they needed to do from minute one to ninety, Ambrosini and Riccardo Montolivo were brace, intelligent and disciplined in midfield and the wide men countered as brilliantly as they defended. All-in-all it was the perfect game to play against Barcelona and Milan now head to the second leg on March 12th as favourites. Between then and now expect the home team’s brilliance to be talked up but for them to now progress they will have to produce something very special and this Milan side will have to be nothing like the one on show in this game. We must not forget Barcelona’s only conquerors in the last four years of this competition won their first leg against the Catalan giants (Inter Milan & Chelsea).
AC Milan ended a seven CL match winless streak against Barca. This was their longest winless streak against any given opponent. Their longest winless streak against specific opponents now is three (against Galatasaray, Real Madrid and FC Porto).
Kevin-Prince Boateng scored his fourth CL goal. Mickael Essien is the only Ghanaian player to have scored more CL goals: 11. André Ayew is also on four.
Sulley Muntari scored in his CL debut match for AC Milan. The last Milan player to score in his first CL match for the team was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored two in his first CL match for Milan in September 2010.
The last time Barcelona lost a CL match by a two goal margin or more was also in Milan: away at Internazionale in April 2010 (3-1).
FC Barcelona fielded nine Spanish players in the CL knock out phase for the first time in their club history. Only Real Madrid have ever started more Spaniards in a Champions League KO match (10 against Juventus in March 1996).
Xavi played his 126th CL match, overtaking Clarence Seedorf (125) into fourth place of most appearance makers.
Jose Mourinho sprung no real surprises in his selection although Raphael Varane for Pepe, who hadn’t started a game for six weeks, was his biggest decision to make.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson picked a surprising, attack-minded eleven asking Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck to play on the flanks with Shinji Kagawa centrally behind Robin Van Persie. Nemanja Vidic missed the match through injury.
This will be a night remembered for Ferguson’s brave team selection, a gamble that paid off.
Asking Rooney and Welbeck to play wide served two purposes for the Scot. First of all he had scorers on the field who could make a difference when a given a chance and secondly they were asked to pin Real’s full backs deep.
The first task was successful early as Welbeck rose to head home Rooney’s corner after 20 minutes. The corner itself looked like a goal kick but once it was awarded, Real fell asleep with neither Varane, Sergio Ramos, or Diego Lopez, coming for the ball in a commanding fashion.
Rooney on the right was an interesting thing to watch. Real do a lot of their damage down their left flank so it looked from the outset a very big gamble from Ferguson. Rooney actually played very deep early in the game using his long-range passing ability to a tee, sending long balls through to Van Persie who did a good job holding the ball up.
The great teams often have the ability to make tactical adjustments during the game and the vulnerable Rafael was Real’s target as Fabio Coentrao and Mesut Ozil joined Ronaldo in targeting that area.
In fact, Ozil led all players with 41 touches in the first half and would go on to lead all players with a remarkable 104 over the 90 minutes. The next highest was Sami Khedira, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso each with 69.
Ozil would play a key role in Real’s goal, coming 10 minutes after Welbeck’s, interchanging brilliantly with Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria. At this point it was Di Maria on the left who crossed for Ronaldo to head home the equaliser. It was a fine cross and no surprise that it came from United’s weak side where Rafael and Rooney were stationed.
If the cross was good then the goal was sensational. Ronaldo jumped to a great height and then headed the ball with a wonderful force past David De Gea, who jumped for the ball when it was already in the back of the net.
That was certainly no slight on De Gea who had a night to remember making a number of key saves, particularly one on Fabio Coentrao after just five minutes. It was no exaggeration to suggest it was his finest showing in a United shirt.
He was not the only hero on the night for United, who got deeper and deeper as the game wore on as Real ran out of ideas. Michael Carrick and Phil Jones kept their discipline as holders while Van Persie’s movement out wide allowed Welbeck, and occasionally, Kagawa to take up the central role.
Although Real dominated possession, United actually had the better of the chances late as Van Persie hit the bar and then miscued a shot that looked destined for the back of the net, allowing Xabi Alonso to clear the ball off the line.
United’s changes reinforced their need for their defensive shape to remain in tact while Real’s showed a lack of ideas aside from Gonzalo Higuain for Karim Benzema which probably came 59 minutes too late. It happened one minute before the hour mark.
All-in-all the draw was a fair result. Both sides had decisions go against them (Jones looked to have fouled Di Maria in the box & Varane tripped Evra as the last man) and could have scored more goals but 1-1 sets up a fascinating second leg in three weeks time.
It is hard to imagine neither team scoring at Old Trafford but Real will need to be better in the final third of the field than they were in this game.
United overwhelmingly reliant on attacking talent this season will be buoyed by this excellent defensive performance as a unit. At home (where you are asked to come out of your shell a little more) that will be tested more than in this leg.
Job done for United so far but they are only half way there because they know this away goal isn’t as valuable as it would be against a lesser powerhouse than Real Madrid.
Real remain unbeaten in home matches against Manchester United, winning two and drawing three.
Real are now unbeaten in their last 10 Champions League home matches since losing to FC Barcelona in the 2010/2011 semifinals (0-2).
Real Madrid have scored at least one goal in each of their last 20 Champions League matches. Only FC Barcelona (twice, 20 and 29), Arsenal (21), Liverpool (21) and Bayern Munchen (22) scored in 20 or more consecutive Champions League matches before.
Manchester United conceded their 300th goal in all European competitions. Only one other British team has conceded 300 goals or more in all European competitions: Celtic (also 300).
Manchester United are now unbeaten in their last 15 matches (all competitions), since losing to CFR 1907 Cluj last December in the Champions League group stage (0-1).
Cristiano Ronaldo became only the third player in Champions League history to score goals both for and against Manchester United, along with Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie.
Ronaldo needs one more goal to equal Filippo Inzaghi on sixth place on the all-time Champions League top scorers list
Ronaldo became only the second player after Karin Benzema to ever score against both Manchester United and Manchester City in the Champions League.
Ryan Giggs made his 150th appearance in all European competitions. Only Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, Raúl and Javier Zanetti have reached this total.
Valencia started in a 4-2-3-1 but played with a very narrow midfield five, asking their full backs to get forward and provide the width.
Carlo Ancelotti again picked Ezequiel Lavezzi in a more central role handing Brazilian Lucas Moura his Champions League debut on the right.
The most interesting trend to develop from the start was PSG sacrificing their left hand side defensively. This is not the first time they have asked Javier Pastore to play on the left of their midfield in the Champions League (he did it very successfully in their last match) and there are clear advantages to this system but it does give their opponents a real opportunity to double up against Maxwell. Valencia right back Joao Pereira doesn’t need to be asked twice to get forward at the best of times and without a natural left sided player to mark he had the freedom to attack the flank from the start. Six times in the first 30 minutes the Portuguese international got forward but each time PSG handled it through a combination of poor delivery and good defending.
Another reason for Valencia being so poor in the final third was the close proximity of the trio behind Roberto Soldado. Sofiane Feghouli appeared to want to get central a lot but as Ever Banega pushed on, it meant Pereira was all alone against Maxwell and, effectively, the Argentine midfielder was wasted as he didn’t do any of his tasks properly.
Pastore’s deployment on the left meant that, with the ball, he, Lavezzi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could interchange often and pass around Valencia’s markers. Ibrahimovic loves to come deep and his teams are often successful when he maintains possession and finds advancing runners. This also meant Valencia’s centre backs played high to avoid having to play running towards their own goalkeeper, situations they looked very uncomfortable in.
Getting runners advancing beyond Ibrahimovic, is exactly how PSG almost opened the scoring after nine minutes. The Swede was cynically chopped down by Adil Rami and, with the referee playing a good advantage, Lucas Moura sprinted on to the ball and hit a rocket off the post.
A minute later the visitors were ahead when Pastore’s excellent movement brought him over to the right where he connected on a fine move with Lavezzi who smashed it beyond the poor Vicente Guaita in the Valencia goal.
Lucas had a fine Champions League debut up against Andres Guardado on the right flank. The Mexican will be having nightmares about the Brazilian when he sleeps tonight, as the winger excelled defending deep against his opponent and then shone when he could show his pace with the ball. At one point he ran 70 yards without breaking a sweat and it was a shame when he was removed after 53 minutes with what looked like a slight injury.
By then PSG were 2-0 up, scoring two minutes before half time, after Pastore, once again, had drifted centrally and found space to convert an excellent cross by Lucas who had again got the better of Guardado.
At half time Valencia were precariously close to being out of the tie and needed to make changes. Jonas and Banega were removed for Sergio Canales and Nelson Valdez as Ernesto Valverde recognised the need for width from an area other than full back.
Carlo Ancelotti and PSG responded by asking Pastore to play a far more defensive role in the second half rarely leaving the left flank at all. It was fascinating to watch their tactical maturity develop on the biggest stage as they sat deep with the lead and countered brilliantly. Ibrahimovic’s hold up play combined with Lavezzi’s speed caused Valencia many problems as they chased the game. It should have been 3-0 when Lavezzi shot straight at Guaita, after a great long ball by Verratti, and again when sub Clement Chantome put the ball in the net after a brilliant sequence of play with Ibrahimovic. The goal was incorrectly ruled offside as the ball to Chantome came off a Valencia player.
The Spanish side stayed in the game and looked the biggest threat with long balls over the top of the PSG defenders, who sat deep throughout and were only out of their comfort zone when having to retreat with a striker on their shoulders. Soldado and Valdez both came very close through this route as Tino Costa’s passes were now effective with the removal of Banega in front of him.
It came as no surprise, then, into injury time when a free kick over the top of PSG’s defence was met by Adil Ramy who poked home a late goal.
For the very first time in the match things hadn’t gone the way of the visitors and two minutes later, seconds before the final whistle, Ibrahimovic was given a straight red for going over the ball in a standing tackle. The decision was very harsh but now means the visitors will have to play the second leg without their talisman.
All-in-all for 89 and a half minutes this was a complete performance from PSG away from home in the Champions League. They started with great tempo, defended really well, forced a change of shape out of their opponents, always looked a threat when they attacked, scored two and should have had at least one more. However, just when it seemed like they had figured it out three minutes of madness ensured the tie isn’t yet over.