Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Manchester United - AC Milan CL Full-time Report

Momentum is such a powerful force in sports. It's something that all the audience can feel, the shift of some sort of metaphysical weight in one direction or another, the inevitiable becoming the impossible, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly and sometimes coming from out of left field, something that you wouldn't think change everything; and then it does.

For this game, the momentum shift was the removal of Maldini and Gattuso from the pitch. The former turned out to be the catalyst for Milan's defensive poise. With him gone, the ineffability of the Italian defense turned into a Rossini farce, the smart play of the first half gone, replaced by desperation lunges and sprayed clearances. Without Gattuso, the Italian Terrier, Manchester United had a new-found ability to hold onto the ball, to push, prod and pull the strings of the now-aimless Milan back four.

It was if the cagey veteran had pulled a muscle in his shoulder, his defense suddenly sagging, all he could do was try and counter-punch and hang on while the aggressive younger fighter rained down blows from all directions, changing his point of attack, urged on by a massive crowd eager for blood. In the end, it looked like the veteran had survived, had managed to retain his advantage despite taking a battering. Then an innocent slip, a dip of the shoulder and he was on his back, seconds before the bell.

Really, Milan are in a much better position than a defeated prizefighter. Two away goals is pretty massive in the home-and-away format of the Champions League. On the other hand, they had the momentum and lost it, allowing Manchester United to turn a certain defeat into a last-second victory and now the onus is on Milan to get a goal at home. I predict, Ancelotti being the crafty fox that he is, that Milan will not pull a United and steam forward at the San Siro. Instead, I expect them to sit back, to try and sneak a goal for the first 70 minutes or so, then, if the game is still even, then they will try and go for the throat. It's a good strategy when your team has the Kakas and the Ambrosinis (watch for him in the box late in the game); it's also probably necessary in order to keep this dangerous Manchester United team at a safe distance, to jab and jab and jab and hope.

Manchester United - Milan CL Halftime Report

It's hard to avoid the heavyweight boxing metaphor when it comes to a clash of the sporting titans. Boxing is the reduction of high-level conflict and as such, it lends itself perfectly as a way to recast the actions of a less bloody sport.

The word for this first half is definitely 'naiveity'. Manchester United, boasting some of the great young stars in world football, is the more athletic, attacking side, the young buck, bursting with speed and muscles, the puncher. Milan is the cagey old vet, boasting an Old Testament central defense and a host of players who have done this all so many times.

Unwisely, Manchester United has spent the game racing at the Milan goal, not caring about holding onto possession or slowing the pace of the game. As a result, they have one scrappy goal from a corner kick, a number of promising moves and have also conceded two brilliant goals to Milan's youngster, Kaka', the Protestant Christian who talks to God after every goal. The first was a physical goal, Kaka' taking a long touch and then almost teleporting to it, leaving two defenders in his wake, then placing a perfect ball into the far-post side-netting. The second was magic, the Brazilian turning a 1-on-3 into just him and the goalie, putting a perfect finish into the corner of the net as he left Red Devils twisting on the ground.

The Milan umbrella of players across the back of the midfield has worked perfectly, unbalancing the Manchester United attackers just enough for Nesta and Maldini to snuff out attacking runs while providing ample possession. The formation of Seedorf, Ambrosini, Pirlo and Gattuso is similar to what we've seen from Chelsea this year, with four central midfielders, 3 of them sitting deep, controlling the middle of the field and relying on the fullbacks to move up and provide width, with midfielders staying back to clog up the lanes when they do. With Kaka' playing as a media-punta and Gilardino isolated up top, the Italians are set up to take advantage of breaks in the defense, breaks that going to come when you're playing John O'Shea and Wes Brown in defense and you aren't taking pains to protect them.

Although the game is far from over, it's hard not to feel that Man U's naive approach has doomed them against a team that's on its ascendancy as the season draws to a close (their league position relative to Roma simply isn't relevant because it was their poor start that cost them positions in the Italian table) and who definitely know how to pull the old rope-a-dope.