Both sides stuck to their usual formations and mentality. Barca playing their fluid 4-3-3, with Andres Iniesta partnering Sanchez and Messi up front, Seydou Keita a surprise inclusion in midfield aside Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernandez, with Carles Puyol deputising at left back. Milan stuck to their narrower 4-3-1-2 shape, with Kevin Prince Boateng fit to return, playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho. Massimo Ambrosini took the injured Mark van Bommel’s place in the defensive midfield role, flanked by the industrious Antonio Nocerino and the ageless Clarence Seeforf. Barca were not too badly hit by injuries but Milan missed their best defender, Thiago Silva, at the heart of their defence.
Barca deployed their usual pass and move style, but with an obvious right sided bias. This made sense for several reasons, one of which was that Seedorf is not able to offer his full back as much protection as the much more energetic Nocerino on the right of the Milan midfield, and another is that Milan’s narrow style is vulnerable to effective wing play. With Dani Alves as attacking as ever from right back, and Alexis Sanchez playing as a right footed right winger (not often Barca’s style), it made sense to attack down that side. Couple this with the fact that Antonini is not a brilliant player, and that Puyol was the unnatural left back, and the tactic was an obvious one to deploy.
Milan’s gameplan was similarly clear, although they did not target a particular player. Because they had home advantage, they knew the pressure was on them to score while remaining tight at the back. For the first ten minutes, they applied very heavy pressure to Barca, hoping to force and error and create a chance for themselves. This almost worked, with Boateng’s powerful effort being blocked and Robinho horribly mishitting an easy volley from just a few yards out.
This tactic did not work though, and since Milan have quite a high average age in their team, they knew that continuing to press heavily would not be possible for the whole match, and reverted to their usual tactic (particularly against top sides) - counter attacking. They were without Ignazio Abate, who is very useful for fast breaks, but Nocerino, Boateng and Seedorf combined on a number of occasions to hit Barca on the break, with Ibrahimovic missing a very decent chance one on one with Valdes.
Counter attacking against Barca is risky though, you have to invite them to attack you and bring players forward, which they were only too happy to do. Sanchez and Messi were particularly dangerous, as Sanchez and Alves overloaded Antonini at left back and Messi’s quick feet were often too much for Nesta and Mexes. One moments of controversy happened with a Barca attack, as Sanchez was brought down by Abbiati in the box and bizarrely, not awarded a penalty. Messi also managed a goal from a Sanchez cross, but was clearly offside.
Milan’s plan worked in the first half though, a few excellent saves and some luck saw them to the break at half time. They played very narrowly even in defence, knowing that Barca are uncomfortable when they have to cross the ball. This proved to be true, Barca crosses were awkward and Messi was far too small to outjump Nesta and/or Mexes. Messi likes to drop deep as well though, and Ambrosini was tasked with dealing with him when he did so. On these occasions he decided to tackle hard, and was lucky to escape a yellow card, but he did appear to be achieving his aim of winding up Messi. The crowd also endeavoured to play their part.
The only other incident of note was a Barca counter attack, Sanchez broke clear but as he shot, Antonini managed to catch him up and perform a stunning sliding block in his own box. Goalless at the break.
The second half wasnt as exciting as the first, but still an interesting battle nonetheless. After 5 minutes Robinho appeared to be injured and was replaced by Stephan El Shaarawy. It may have been a tactical move as Robinho was playing poorly but both play the second striker role so it was not of much interest tactically. Neither team appeared to change it’s tactics for the second half, but Milan played significantly further forward, chasing a win to take to Spain, and Barca retreated slightly, knowing that if they didnt lose it would be a good result.
No team really dominated the half, the midfields simply battled for the ball, then the teams took turns to counter attack. Barca passed the ball better, but Milan tackled better. Both were dangerous on the counter attack but neither teams talisman (Messi and Ibrahimovic) had a particularly good game. Ibrahimovic looked disinterested and off form, and was nowhere near his usual high standard of play. Messi on the other hand, while dangerous, was nullified by 3 different players.
The first was Alessandro Nesta, who he spent the majority of the game playing directly against. Nesta is a veteran, but he used every bit of his experience to shackle Messi (just as he did in the group stages), frustrating him on several occasions and knowing when to pick up a professional foul for the team. Part of Messi’s game though, is dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball and assist with the build up. When he did so, Massimo Ambrosini was tasked with dealing with him, and he too did about as well as you’re likely to see a player when faced with Messi. He knew exactly how much he could get away with, fouling Messi a number of times to knock him off his game, while throwing himself into tackles and blocks to help neutralise him. When Messi did beat these two, he was faced with Christian Abbiati in goal, who made a number of excellent saves when faced with a one on one.
Some more subs were made to attempt to change the game, but neither manager made too many risks. Tello replaced Iniesta, so Barca had a natural winger on both sides and could attack both full backs, instead of simply attacking Antonini down the right all game. Tello added a new dimension to Barca’s play, but wasted a good chance when he should have passed to Messi, and couldnt beat Antonini to a loose ball which would otherwise have been an open goal.
Milan made two changes. The first was Boateng coming off for Urby Emanuelson. Boateng was probably not fit to continue, having just returned from injury, and Emanuelson is the most similar player to him in the Milan squad (highly energetic, links midfield to attack). He is an inferior player though, and horribly miscontrolled a decent chance for Milan. The second change was probably enforced as well, left back Djamel Mesbah replacing the excellent Alessandro Nesta. This meant a defensive reshuffle, but Milan would hold out for a clean sheet.
Barca then replaced Sanchez with Pedro, which again was not of great interest as both are similar players, but Pedro was less inclined to cross the ball into the box, which hadnt worked all night thanks to Mexes and Nesta’s height advantage over Messi.
In the final 15 minutes, Milan tried much more simple, direct, long balls, hoping to catch Barca out at the back with Ibrahimovic’s height. He had a poor game though, and Pique was only too happy to clear the majority of the hopeful long balls. The game ended 0-0.
0-0, but by no means a dull game. Both sides will feel they should have scored in the first half (Barca’s penalty call, Robinho’s terrible miss), but neither was desperate to score at the end and were not unhappy with the final result. Going into the second leg, Barca’s failure to score an away goal means that the result on the night will decide the tie, and a score draw will favour Milan. Both sides played well, and neither Allegri nor Guardiola really came out on top. Had Ibrahimovic or Messi been at their best, this could have been a very different game.