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Soccer: Milan stands alone against the English

Posted by Dresonic on April 12, 2007

Clarence Seedorf, left, eluding Owen Hargreaves of Bayern. Seedorf scored as AC Milan outwitted Munich and won, 2-0. (Christof Stache/The Associated Press)

So, after nine months of endeavor across Europe, the Champions League has come down to this: AC Milan against the English.

Preying on Bayern Munich errors, picking the pockets of Germany’s powerhouse with two goals in four minutes in Munich’s own backyard Wednesday, Milan, won, somewhat comfortably, 2-0. Its 4-2 aggregate victory gave it the right to represent the rest of the continent in a tournament that has turned very English.

Milan travels to Manchester on April 24, with the second leg at the San Siro on May 2. It will be a semifinal of Italian guile against the pace of United’s youth.

The other semi is a repeat of 2005, when Chelsea and Liverpool cancelled one another out in stubborn defensiveness until a late, controversial goal put Liverpool through.

The semis also pit three exponents of pragmatic defending against one team, United, that attacks with breathtaking, exhilarating speed.

Do not think for one moment that Milan will allow Manchester to destroy its defense as United did in putting seven goals past Roma this week.

Milan’s coach Carlo Ancelotti was not born a Roman, but he played there for almost a decade and captained Roma up to 1987. His first thoughts after Wednesday turned to the “mission” to represent Italian soccer.

The manner of Milan’s victory was typical. It absorbed Bayern’s muscular but unimaginative thrusts. Then Clarence Seedorf and the inevitable Filippo Inzaghi scored in the space of four minutes. Game over.

What Milan had it held. Where Romans had capitulated on Tuesday, the Milanese most assuredly would not. The Germans, or those in Munich’s employ, had neither the class nor, in the end, the will to break down the rearguard organized by Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta.

To win in Munich’s Allianz Arena, tells all about Milan. To capitalize on error and feed on defensive uncertainty as first Seedorf, then Inzaghi did, was down to cool heads and experience.

Seedorf, a Dutchman, has won the Champions League with three different clubs. He knows where and when to strike.

Midway through the first half, from Kaká’s pass, Seedorf sensed how loose the home defense was. He nudged the ball to his right, swayed out of reach of the Brazilian defender Lucio, and struck a shot through the legs of Daniel van Buyten. The shot was thus concealed, and Munich’s goalie Oliver Kahn had no way of preventing the ball entering his net.

Kahn was exposed again, beaten again, within minutes. Seedorf, with his back to goal, flicked the ball with his heel. Inzaghi, slender, stealthy and so often unseen until its too late, drew Kahn before chipping the ball over the goalie.

Great players and wise managers have observed how little is seen of Inzaghi on the field as lurks on the shoulder of the last defender, on the margins of offside. Then, if the officials do not whistle him, with one touch he scores.

The 66,000 inside Munich’s stadium know him as “The Terror of Bavaria” because he has scored against their team six times now. In fact, he isn’t picking on them: He has scored 55 times in 89 European games.

At 33, he’s barely fit, he seems only to come out on big nights, his knees and ankles cannot take the grind of week to week activity. But the instinct is undiminished.

“We were in good shape,” admitted Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Bayern coach Wednesday. “We were perfectly prepared and had big plans for this match. But I have to admit we don’t have the class of Milan. They play very intelligently, they capitalize on every little mistake. And when they let the ball flow between their players, it is technical perfection.”

Maybe Hitzfeld gilds the lily. Maybe he, and the Bayern president, Franz Beckenbauer, and the veteran Kahn praised Milan rather than admit that their team lacked invention and belief.

Milan’s aging players were allowed to impose their authority because Bayern seemed cowed by history.

Only once in 10 attempts had Munich won a match against Milan – and never over two legs in the Champions League. Having shown the mental strength to twice come from behind and finish 2-2 in Milan, the Germans had less bite than kittens on their home ground.

Milan goes forward with two objectives. The Italians on its team want, as Ancelotti said, to show that Italy has something more than Roma’s capitulation suggested.

The bulk of the team was also party to Milan’s own shocking defensive breakdown in Istanbul two years ago when it allowed Liverpool to come from three goals behind in the final. Liverpool then won on penalty kicks.

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