AC Milan 0-1 FC Zurich: Depressed Rossoneri Shot Down By Upbeat Swiss
The Champions League, said vice-president Adriano Galliani two weeks ago, was where Milan come to life. Not tonight they didn’t. In front of a half-empty San Siro, the team in the red and black stripes huffed and puffed with all the conviction of builder about to go on his lunchbreak.
Without the injured Thiago Silva, Leonardo was forced to insert the increasingly error-prone Kaka Kaladze into the centre of the defence and also opted to start with Marek Jankulovski instead of the out-of-sorts Gianluca Zambrotta at left-back. Mathieu Flamini was preferred to Gennaro Gattuso in the midfield disrupter role. Zurich coach Bernard Challandes, meanwhile, was forced into a serious attacking change after Eric Hassli broke his leg in training and asked midfielder Dusan Djuric to support striker Johan Vonlanthen.
Milan made a sluggish start but were dominating by the time ten minutes was up. Then came the sucker punch. The Swiss won a corner which was swung half-hit into the box where an unmarked Hannu Tihinen switched legs and scissor-volleyed the ball past Storari to make it 1-0. Where were Jankulovski and Kaladze? Not where they should have been. Leonardo must have been thinking, it never rains but it pours.
And for the next 35 minutes, Zurich have a bit of a spring in their step and a bit of belief in their soul. Milan spent the rest of the half playing a high line, pushing forward and nearly getting caught on the break. The danger is never more apparent than when Vonlanthen broke down the right at pace and pulled the ball back to Margairaz who shot just over. In truth it could have been 2-0 before half-time, especially if Storari did not pulled off a decent save just before the break.
Okay, it could also have been 2-2, Inzaghi and Seedorf missing a handful of difficult half-chances.
But Milan’s greatest achievement in the first 45 minutes was to make a team who are sitting in the Swiss first division relegation zone look like candidates to make the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition.
Unsurprisingly, Leonardo made immediate changes. Zambrotta came on for Flamini, Ronaldinho for Seedorf. Ironically, the first ball that made it into the box in the second half landed at the feet of Ambrosini.
Pato, at least, came out without looking as if he had the weight of the world on his young shoulders. Pirlo too looked energised.
The next 20 minutes was defined by Ronaldinho drifting around the 18-yard box, prodding and poking little through balls into the paths of Pato and Inzaghi. Both strikers come close more than once. But, with Nesta off injured, the sudden Swiss breaks that looked so threatening in the first half had an even more alarming air about them.
And, as the chances came and went away again, Leonardo looked like a man whose job was on the line.
With little over ten minutes remaining, the Rossoneri’s attacking waves had become more dribble-like, the self-belief visibly draining from the faces of a broken team.
Jankulovski continued to charge down the right, Ambrosini kept on making runs into the box, Ronaldinho always looked like a livewire wherever he roamed and Inzaghi never stopped hanging around making a nuisance of himself. Zambrotta even hit the woodwork in the last few seconds of injury time.
And yet there was never a sense that Milan were going to pull the crumb of comfort of a draw out of the bag. Zurich hung on, wasted time and did what not even they would have thought was possible before the game.
Milan must look for change and do it quickly and decisively. That means playing Pirlo further forward. It could also mean the Leonardo experiment being abandoned before it has really even begun.