An indifferent set of Champions League round-of-16 first legs for Spanish clubs ended in lame fashion on Wednesday night when Barcelona succumbed to a determined AC Milan and a degree of misfortune to lose 2-0 in the San Siro. It is not the first time the team that has come closest to dominating Europe’s elite competition this century has failed when faced by two closed lines of defense — it also suffered notable defeats against Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea last season. But last night Barça’s possession game looked somewhat sterile; its passing game predictable and too pedestrian to pierce the opposition’s armor.
Milan’s defense worked what has to be considered a minor miracle in bringing the words Leo Messi and quiet night into the same sentence. With no David Villa on the bench to try for a more direct approach, stand-in coach Jordi Roura’s only attempt to mix up Barcelona’s offense came with the introduction of Alexis Sánchez for Cesc Fàbregas halfway through the second half. By then the Italian side had taken the lead after Scottish referee Craig Thomson had ignored a clear hand by Cristián Zapata to leave the ball at Kevin-Prince Boateng’s feet to fire home.
The game appeared to be petering out with the 1-0 scoreline giving neither team an obvious edge for the return leg, when a stuttering red-and-black counterattack saw the ball fall kindly to Sulley Muntari, who finished well to stun the four-time Champions League winner. But to Barcelona’s credit, the players did not look for excuses in the refereeing error that led to the first goal. “We must have done something wrong,” said Dani Alves, when asked about the result. “If we want to stay in the competition, we will have to play better.”
“The result is a bad one, but this team has earned confidence and credit. The scoreline is excessive, but not out of reach,” concluded Roura.
Barça will play better at home next month but, remarkably, it joins the other three Spanish teams in having ceded the advantage going into their second legs. After Valencia lost at home to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid’s Bernabéu tie with Manchester United last week, Málaga lost 1-0 at Porto on Tuesday, meaning it, like Barça, will be on a knife edge in the home leg having failed to pick up a precious away goal.