With the competition now reaching its vital playoff stage, things didn’t debut in quite the same way for the three Italian teams still in European contention. Inter Milan, Roma, and AC Milan shared the three thirds that make a whole in football: a loss, a win, and a draw.
The knock-out round of the UEFA Champions League has officially begun Tuesday night, and things didn’t start in the best of ways for Internazionale. With Fabio Capello as witness (the England manager was a guest of honor tonight), the Nerazzurri have lost 2-0 in the home of the Reds, Anfield Road: the mythical stadium of Liverpool, the venue which strikes fear into all those who step onto its grass. Roberto Mancini’s men did resist for over an hour playing one man down (double yellow for Marco Materazzi), but the energetic verve and incessant attacks of Liverpool proved to be too much. Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard have put a double warranty stamp onto Quarter-final qualification, and it will be very hard indeed for Inter to overcome the two goal deficit, even in their home of Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Tactically, Inter coach Roberto Mancini decided not to risk Patrick vieira from the start, putting his faith into Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic instead. The two center mids were supported by Javier Zanetti and Maxwell, while Christian Chivu, often ‘promoted’ to a midfield role this season, occupied the left-back position. Up front, scoring duties were lefts into the expert hands (or feet rather) of Julio Cruz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
On the other side, Liverpool’s FA Cup match this week-end may well had its elimination price, Rafa Benitez could now count on refreshed troops for this very important match, including captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando “El Niño” Torres. The Reds’ midfield wall today was composed by Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano (in front of the backline defense), one step behind the Gerrard-Kuyt-Babel trio, all supporting the lone striker F.Torres. A combination which hasn’t been always effective this season, but which today proved its worth many times over, almost as if compensating for the times it did not. Meanwhile in the stands, the Kop faithful were making Inter really understand that indeed, “This is Anfield”, and that there would a very high mountain to climb for the Serie A team tonight.
Match events started immediately, with Liverpool taking the initiative very early into the game. In minute 3, Jamie Carragher asked Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere for a handball call, on Ivan Córdoba inside the Inter box. The ref didn’t hesitate and waved play on, avoiding a terrible early mistake. Unfortunately for Inter, he would not avoid it a few minutes later. But back to the sequence of events. The ‘Rafa-boys’ were really pressing forward at this time, Kuyt and Babel creating havoc on opposite wings of the Inter box, forcing the Nerazzurri back into their own half. Still, Julio Cesar had yet to make a save (leaving the defensive work to the excellent Córdoba, saving his feathers on more than one occasion) when disaster happened for Inter. Minute 30, yellow card for Materazzi for another foul on Fernando Torres. It was his second. Red Card. Very harsh decision, but Inter down to 10 men. At Anfield. Oh boy.
It wasn’t the first time that the Nerazzurri were forced to play short-handed, Mancini getting plenty of practice in the Serie A this season. Kinda like saying: “I know what to do“: Chivu reverted back to a center role, Maxwell took the Romanian’s place as left-back, Stankovic moved on the wings. A 4-3-2 formation… daring. But was it going to work?
Looking back at the first 45 minutes, one could say that it did. Inter keeper Julio Cesar had to make two saves in the entire half, and not even too complicated ones. If Mancini’s boys could hold another 45, maybe they’d pull off a valiant scoreless tie… ah, but easier said than done at Anfield, right? 10 minutes after the restart, it was finally time for Patrick Vieira to makes his appearance, substituting one of the strikers (in this case Julio Cruz). Mancini was looking to patch up the leaks into his line-up, but the ex-Arsenal captain’s debut was far from being reassuring: one missed pass, leading to a ball stolen by Torres, through to the edge of the Inter box. El Niño’s accurate shot found the ready hand of Julio Cesar however, saving his team into corner. It was minute 58.
Minutes later, some more Vieira-craziness. With Liverpool in possession inside the Inter box, a Gerrard attempted chip over the Frenchman ended up striking his hands in rather obvious fashion, but the referee gave a corner. Shivers for Inter, but in all honesty one had the feeling De Bleeckere was compensating for something. That crazy red card in the first half perhaps, but I digress. Liverpool and Inter were still busy doing their little Champions League theatre, but judging by the possession statistic thus far, the play had rapidly turned into a Reds’ monologue. Finnan and Fabio Aurelio were multiplying their runs down the wings, ready to send in dangerous crosses, all the while Torres continued to hammer at the Inter goal from a distance (great turn by the Spaniard in minute 64, sending a show narrowly wide to the left).
Shortly after, Benitez decided it was time for Lucas Leiva to take a break, and for Peter Crouch to come in. Liverpool effectively turned into a 4-2-4 formation with Babel, Torres, Crouch and Kuyt operating very deep inside the Inter half. With their opponents one man down, who could blame the ex-Valencia coach for trying such a move? It immediately paid dividends, because on Crouch’s first real dangerous shot (wide), the man of the match (thus far) got injured: Ivan Córdoba landed akwardly in trying to head an aerial ball to safety, and twisted his knee. On came Nicolás Burdisso, a valid replacement but not as good as the Colombian had been tonight.
Liverpool continued their assault, no I should say ‘their siege’ to the Inter goal. The Nerazzurri weren’t even trying to move forward at this point, and there’s only so much a lone striker can do when the rest of his team is entrenched into its own half, even if that striker’s name is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The corner-kick count for each team (11-1 for Liverpool) really tells the whole story on how this game was going, a match which would have been marked as ‘epic resistance’ had Inter managed to keep their goal safe for just another 5 minutes. Minute 85 was fatal to them: Jermaine Pennant (on for Babel) controlled a loose ball on the right wing, and delivered a high cross for Dirk Kuyt at the opposite side. The Dutchman chested the ball, before slamming a hard shot into the ground which surpred the vigilance of the Inter keeper (with a little help from Maicon), and crashed into the net. 1-0 Liverpool, with 5 minutes to go.
Reds fans keep reading, it gets better. Inter fans, close the book and go to bed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Minute 90, Liverpool made it two, and who else to deliver the blow than Reds’ Monsieur-tout-faire, captain courageous, Steven Gerrard. On the edge of the Inter box, wide on the right, the England international managed to imprint the ball with a magic trajectory, a powerful yet precise effort which avoided a couple of Inter legs and finished its course on the inside part of the left post. 2-0 Liverpool, Inter in shambles. It will be a very hard task indeed at San Siro, Inter will now need a miracle. The same kind of miracle perhaps that took place on May 4, 1965, when the Nerazzurri lost 3-1 at Anfield before winning 3-0 in the return leg. Can history repeat itself, 43 years later? We will find out in three weeks’ time.
These past few years, one of the biggest criticisms Roma has received from ‘football experts’, is that while the Giallorossi are able to produce very seductive play, they lack the cynicism and deadly accuracy which make a team into a European giant. Today, they exhibited the exact opposite trend: dominated by their Real Madrid opponents in scoring chances and in ball possession, Francesco Totti & friends managed to reverse a very early 1-goal deficit (cortesy of Raúl) to go win the game 2-1, thanks to the tallies of David Pizarro and Amantino Mancini. And too bad if their ‘beautiful play’ was missing at the Olimpico tonight, in two weeks Roma will be travelling to Spain with a 2-1 lead, with every intention of earning a ticket to the Quarter-Finals. Let’s just hope that Santiago Bernabéu doesn’t turn into another Old Trafford.
Tactically, both managers deviated very little from their usual formations, which coincidentally are very very similar in nature: a one-striker 4-2-3-1 line-up. Luciano Spalletti relied on Francesco Totti up front (despite the injury problems), with Daniele De Rossi and David Pizarro operating behind offensive mids Giuly-Perrotta-Mancini. Panucci and Cassetti were preferred to Tonetto and Cicinho as wing-backs, while the Roma center backline saw the return of Juan, aka Mr. Solid. As for Real Madrid, Bernd Schuster gave full confidence to Cannavaro and Heinze in defense, supported by Sergio Ramos and Miguel Torres on the wings. With the absence of Wesley Sneijder, Los Blancos‘ midfield was occupied by Fernando Gago and Mahamadou Diarra in front of the backline, and Raúl-Guti-Robben behind lone striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Two similar formations, two similar playing style: geared towards offense.
The first half of this match belonged entirely to Real Madrid: dominating play and ball possession, Los Merengues were patiently waiting to be in one-man advantage situations to accelerate suddenly, and send the Giallorossi defense into a spin. Arjen Robben was being absolutely devastating with his speedy runs, ably supported by overlaps of Sergio Ramos and Miguel Torres, while the continued movement of captain Raúl and Van Nistelrooy was providing a constant danger to the Roma goal. To quote Gazzetta, “it seemed as if the length of Roma’s blanket was completely inadequate: in trying to cover one side from the cold, the Giallorossi left the other side completely unprotected”. On top of that, De Rossi and Pizarro were left virtually no space to maneuver the counter-attacks (one of Roma’s best weapons), because the Real Madrid players (Diarra and Gago in particular) were pressing their opponents’ midfield very high up, nipping any counter initiative right in the bud.
The mountain climbing started very early for the Giallorossi, who in minute 6 were already trailing by one: pushing deep down the left wing, Robben sent in a cross to the edge of the box for Guti, whose instantaneous left-footed instep found the boot of Raúl. Enough to fool keeper Doni who was diving the other way, 1-0 Real Madrid.
Roma attempted a reaction, motivated by pride more than calculated execution. Marco Cassetti tried a long-ranger (saved by Casillas), then it was Perrotta’s turn. No luck. Instead, Real Madrid could have made it two when Robben got away once again (this time on the right wing), and crossed the ball for a completely unmarked Raúl who sent the ball inches wide of the left post. Shivers at the Olimpico.
As I often say here however “but raté, but encaissé” (French for ‘missed chance, conceded goal’), an adagio which never fails to repeat itself. With Roma in possession on the left wing, Mancini got rid of his marker to send a hard ball across inside the box. A Gago-Totti clash prevented the Roma captain to connect with the ball, but the Argentine midfielder couldn’t manage to clear the danger. Instead, the ball landed straight to the feet of David Pizarro, who powered a low shot into the bottom right corner on which Casillas could only offer a modest foot deflection. Into his own net that is. 1-1. At the end of the first 45 minutes, a scoreline for which Roma could really be grateful.
In the 2nd half, Spalletti’s team tried to turn the tide of play and give the Olimpico faithful their money’s worth. After all, the outside temperature might have been freezing, but the atmosphere at the Olimpico was miles away from being frigid: if anyone deserved a bigger effort from their team tonight it was the Roma supporters. Their heroes understood and pressed forward. Not without suffering still however. Robben was being an absolute thorn in the defense’s backside, and Van Nistelrooy was delighting the Spanish fans with pure bits of class (awesome sombrero to clear Mexès in minute 63, but not enough space to beat Doni). If anyone was going to turn this game to Roma’s advantage, he would have to do it with a stroke of genius.
And who better to deliver that genius than “Il Capitano”? With Roma lobbing a high ball forward, Totti controlled the sphere in spectacular fashion, simultaneously getting rid of Gago and creating wide space in front of him. Enough to spot a perfect corridor for Mancini, slipping behind Cannavaro’s back. Casillas tried to close down the angle on the young Brazilian’s path, but failed: Mancini sidestepped the Spanish keeper, and scored an enormously vital to put Roma ahead! 2-1 Roma, in minute 58.
With over 30 minutes left at this point, the match became vibrant. Roma had stung Madrid’s pride, who thought it was really unfair they were trailing behind. Los Merengues aggressivelly pushed forward: Sergio Ramos tried a shot from outside the box (wide), Robben slammed a missile on which Doni had considerable trouble (Juan’s last-ditch clearance was vital to prevent Raúl’s tap-in), and Perrotta saved a 25m-cannonball from Diarra (which was heading straight into the top corner). Roma were under pressure, but ready to hit back on counter-attacks.
In minute 78 they had a golden chance to do so, but they shockingly wasted a 4 vs. 2 chance when Totti’s one-touch pass to Mancini was too deep. Only two minutes later, Real Madrid hit the post through Van Nistelrooy (exploiting a good service from Royston Drenthe)!! The visiting team had one final chance to tie the game, when a Van Nistelrooy cross was chested back by Raúl for Julio Baptista: shot 2-3 meters above the bar. Close shave for Roma, but the Giallorossi had managed to keep the win safe. Real’s away goal still keeps qualification very much within reach for the Spanish giants, but Roma will be a very tough nut to crack in Madrid. One that now firmly believes it has a chance to make it through to the next round.
“Milan Fort Apache” as titled by La Gazzetta dello Sport. Experience, character, determination: those were the Rossoneri’s winning features tonight, because yes, a draw obtained on hostile English territory can be considered a win. Especially since the majority of tonight’s match was dominated by the home team, a relentlessly attacking Arsenal which however lacked concentration and a small bit of luck in their finishing. The European champions can look at the return leg at San Siro with a bit more tranquility.
The biggest surprise of tonight’s starting line-ups was the presence of Alexandre Pato in the Milan ranks. The young Brazilian talent was forced to leave the field in pain, when he injured his ankle vs. Fiorentina in early February. Yet 17 days later here he was, in the Rossoneri starting line-up ready to begin his biggest Champions League adventure yet, relegating veterans like Alberto Gilardino and Pippo Inzaghi to the bench. Zeljko Kalac was another miraculously-healed subject tonight, recuperating from his stubbed fingers earlier this week. As for Arsène Wenger, he decided it was time to put the 193cm of Emmanuel Adebayor (precautiously rested against Manchester in the FA Cup, with not-too-brilliant results) into the mix, supported by Eduardo Silva and Alexander Hleb. Ex-Milan keeper Jens Lehmann would be defending the Gunners’ goal from his former teammates.
Except for the unfortunate early injury of Kolo Touré in minute 6 (replaced by Philippe Senderos), the debut of Arsenal to tonight’s match was quite positive. The Gunners’ playing motor immediately started running at full throttle, with the entire team looking for the dangerous forwards of Adebayor, and Clichy and Sagna never shying away from pushing forward down the wings. Cesc Fabregas was being the usual inspirator to his teammates’ runs behind the defense, something which kept Paolo Maldini and his friends from the Rossoneri backline really on their toes. However, the Italian captain was precisely the one sounding the charge for his team, just to prove a point that AC Milan hadn’t travelled to London simply to watch. Maldini’s header in minute 10 was the first real chance of the game, who up until then had been dominated by the home team.
Except for a few slip-ups shortly before the break, when Mathieu Flamini was allowed twice an attempt at target (firstly following some good dribbling work by Emmanuel Eboué, then due to a passing mistake by Pirlo), the Milan backline had kept danger at bay (Kalac’s activity had been limited to a couple of saves). Things were going to change slightly for the second period, also because Alessandro Nesta (up until then flawless) was forced off due to a muscle injury to the groin: Maldini moved back to the center, Jankulovski (on for Nesta) replaced him on the left wing. This gave the chance to Arsenal to immediately test the newcomer: a great pass by Hleb for Eboué (right on the edge of the box) was driven wide by the Ivory Coast international, then minutes later an Eduardo-Fabregas-Eduardo one-two gave set up the naturalized Croatian for the finish, but it was over Kalac’s crossbar.
Fortunately for Milan, the now-recentered captain Maldini was leaving no room to breathe for Adebayor, forcing Arsenal to look for alternative solutions. On the other end, there was not much trace of the Rossoneri’s offensive presence tonight, Kaká and Pato being largely unproductive in their efforts. It must be said that Milan’s inability to hold the ball in the midfield zone, was creating very few playable balls forward for the goalscorers. The Gunners had time to try their luck once again through Fabregas (central shot saved by Kalac), Eduardo (shot wide), and Bendtner (closed down by Kaladze), before Carlo Ancelotti decided it was time to give Pato a rest and insert Gilardino. The ex-Parma striker immediately gave Milan their second shot on target of the night (twisting header on a corner-kick delivery), but power and angle weren’t enough to worry Lehmann.
The match was now approaching the end, so Arsenal decided to really throw themselves forward in order to obtain a last-minute victory goal. Adebayor and Fabregas put Kalac to work once again, and Bendtner had a great close-range opportunity as he received a left-wing assist from Hleb, but his one-time finish was narrowly wide off AC Milan’s top corner!! With 1 minute left, Theo Walcott came on for Eboué and provided the assist for Arsenal’s golden second-half chance: getting rid of his marker on the right-wing, the English youngster calibrated a perfect cross for Adebayor onto the 2nd post, who only needed to apply the finish with an empty net! Instead, the Togolese striker’s header clattered the crossbar and rebounded back in play, eventually being cleared by the Milan defense.
A real head-grabbing moment for Gunners fans, the last of tonight’s show at Emirates stadium. Wenger’s team will have to try harder in San Siro in two weeks, while Ancelotti’s boys can be satisfied of the draw they obtained away from home.