There is a way to play against Barcelona. It is not easy, and nor should it be, but last night Milan followed the famous examples of Chelsea in 2012 and city rivals Internazionale in 2010 to pull off a brilliant 2-0 victory in their Champions League last-16 first leg at San Siro.
The tie is far from over after goals from former Portsmouth duo Kevin- Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari but Milan have an excellent chance of knocking out the 2009 and 2011 European champions. This was a perfect display of how to restrict and punish Barcelona, as Milan contained in the first half before hitting Barcelona twice in the second.
The Milan coach, Massimiliano Allegri, was typically unflappable. "The boys deserved this result. They didn't give anything away at a defensive level and they made the most of the we had," he said after the game. "We made some mistakes in the first half but we improved a lot in the second... the tie is very open."
Those sentiments were echoed by Barcelona's interim coach Jordi Roura, standing in for Tito Vilanova who is recovering from throat surgery. Roura said: "It's a bad result but I'm absolutely convinced that we can turn this around in the second leg with the support of our crowd."
Milan did not have the cup-tied Mario Balotelli up front and lacked attacking threat through the first half. Barcelona hoarded the ball, passing it in Milan's half, waiting for an opportunity. Milan, knowing that 0-0 in a home first leg was a usable result, were happy to dig in, keep their shape and play on the break.
With an expertly-arranged back four and five hard-working midfielders in front of them, Milan stuck well to their plan. The Spanish league leaders walked off at half-time without having created a single genuine chance.
Milan's containment plan continued in the second half but was enhanced by a goal after 57 minutes. The Italians were never going to create too many openings but with enough luck and ruthlessness they could take the lead. That is what happened when Riccardo Montolivo's long-range shot hit Giampaolo Pazzini on the arm. Barcelona's defenders stopped, expecting a free-kick, and Boateng pounced on the loose ball, spun and shot into the far bottom corner.
This put even more pressure on Barcelona and five minutes later they made an overdue substitution, replacing Cesc Fabregas with Alexis Sanchez. Another quick forward allowed a more direct route to goal for Barcelona while freeing more space in midfield for Andres Iniesta, previously marginalised on the left.
Barcelona improved but not by enough and Milan scored the crucial second goal. M'Baye Niang broke down the right and found El Shaarawy who flicked the ball perfectly to Muntari who finished powerfully into the bottom corner.
Milan (4-2-3-1) Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; Montolivo, Ambrosini; Boateng, Muntari, El Shaarawy (Traore, 88); Pazzini (Niang 75). Subs not usedAmelia, De Sciglio, Yepes, Christante, Bojan
Barcelona (4-3-3) Valdes; Alves, Pique, Puyol (Mascherano, 88), Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas (Sanchez, 62); Pedro, Messi, Iniesta. Subs not usedPinto, Montoya, Thiago, Song, Tello.
Referee C Thomson (Scotland).