Champions League Day 5 – AC Milan Through to the Next Round, Lazio Now Need a Miracle

UEFA Champions League logoWith Inter and Roma already through to the next round, it could have been “carton plein” for Italian teams in the Champions League. Alas, only Milan achieved their objective today, and there’s going to have to be some serious miracle work for Lazio to pull through in the last round.

In Lisbon, Benfica was a real tough nut to crack for the Rossoneri, but in the end the 1-1 final score is enough to send AC Milan through to the next round, and eliminate the Portuguese team. All goals were scored in the first half: first Andrea Pirlo, then Maxi Pereira, two amazing shots.

Meanwhile in the other match at the Stadio Olimpico of Rome, the Biancocelesti earned the lead against Olympiakos thanks to Goran Pandev, but then had to concede the Greek team’s come-back throguh Luciano Galletti and Darko Kovacevic. Qualification to the next round is now extremely difficult for Lazio: they need a win against Real Madrid (at the Bernabéu!) and at the same time Olympiakos must get at least a draw vs. Werder Bremen (victorious 3-2 against Real today).

Champions League day 5 - Benfica 1-1 Milan, Lazio 1-2 Olympiakos

One of the ugliest AC Milans of the season grabs the points it neeeded, through 90 minutes (almost) of Lisbon suffering. The 1-1 final score is enough to send the Rossoneri through to the Last 16, but boy was this a hard game for Carlo Ancelotti: the Italian coach’s facial expressions during this match (along with those of Adriano Galliani) were an entire spectacle by themselves.

The whole gameplan of the Rossoneri for this match, given the must-win situation of the Portuguese club, was to score an early goal and then spend the remaining 70-80 minutes controlling the game. They almost got their wish, because 15 minutes into the game Andrea Pirlo struck gold: obtainining the ball from 30m, the Milan playmaker took a few steps then let a ripping shot sink into the right-bottom corner of the net. Awesome delivery by Pirlo, and 1-0 Milan.

If one analyzed the match situation at this point, he could have predicted an easy victory for the Rossoneri and he wouldn’t have been wrong: on top of getting the early lead, Milan had completely dominated their opponents for the first quarter of an hour. Controlling the wings due to the inexplicable slowness of the Portuguese side midfielders, and setting the pace in midfield while closing down any available space for the opponents, all this without one of their core players even (Massimo Ambrosini, replaced by Cristian Brocchi).

Then… the collapse. What’s even worse, a collapse in a the field zone which up until then had given the biggest insurance to Carlo Ancelotti: the midfield. First, Clarence Seedorf started operating at half capacity, probably due to a slight knock which made Rossoneri supporters fear he’d actually have to come off. Then, the Benfica players slowly realized that by pressuring their opponents very high on the field and not allowing Pirlo any space, most of the Milan initiatives would fail before they even started. Kaká was the only unaccountable factor in this equation, with his constant changes of pace, but there’s only so much the speedy Brazilian could do if he didn’t receive the support of his teammates.

Thus, the Portuguese team started earning scoring chances of their own. First in minute 19, when a fast counter-attack set up Nuno Gomes on the right, who then trickled a pass through for Maxi Pereira completely unmarked in the center! Fortunately for Milan, a last-ditch effort by Kakha Kaladze allowed Dida to recover the ball before Pereira’s shot did any damage. This was only the set-up to the inevitable though: a minute later, Benfica got their equalizer: through on the right, Maxi Pereira faked a right-foot shot before putting the ball onto his left foot, and from the edge of the box let an absolute ripper smash straight into the top left corner of Dida’s goal. Unstoppable, 1-1.

The half eventually came to an end, with Milan still suffering and trying (unsuccessfully) in every possible way to come back to the domination they had exerted in the first 15 minutes, not before Maxi Pereira had yet another scoring chance on the right wing, but blasted his shot on Kaladze’s leg for a corner.

In the 2nd half, Ancelotti decided to apply some defensive patches to his line-up, and inserted Paolo Maldini for Serginho on the left wing (the Brazilian was deemed insufficient in his efforts tonight, especially when needed for covering work). Brocchi had to exit the field due to some back pain, leaving space for Yoann Gourcuff also. Unfortunately for Milan, the fresh meat did little to change the game’s momentum, decidedly to the advantage of the hosts, Even Gennaro Gattuso started losing easy balls and messing up passes, sign there obviously was something wrong here tonight. On top of Kaladze, only Alessandro Nesta seemed to save himself from the general embarassment, closing down the Benfica attackers when he could.

The half continued pretty much the same way as the first, with Milan defending (in however way they could) and Benfica trying to get the winner. Ancelotti operated one more change by inserting Massimo Oddo for Clarence Seedorf (one more defender in), but the chances kept pouring in. First Rui Costa (saved by Dida), then Petit (another great Dida save, then Nuno Gomes scored the rebound but in offside position), and then Nuno Gomes (half-volley from Maxi Pereira’s cross, straight at the keeper). It was litterally an all-out-assault, and it was only when José Antonio Camacho (the Benfica coach) finally took out his last defenders (to insert strikers Ángel Di María, Oscar Cardozo, and Freddy Adu) that AC Milan could stick their nose out of their half and be dangerous on counters. In the 90th and 92nd, Kakà had two perfect chances to bury the game, but his diagonal effort and open-net header respectively were wide of the mark. Eventually the referee called for full time, and Ancelotti could let out a giant sigh: his team was through to the playoff stage.


 S.L. Benfica
[Match Highlights]
 AC Milan
GOALSCORERS: 15’ Pirlo (M), 20’ Maxi Pereira (B)
BENFICA (4-2-3-1): Quim – Luis Felipe (75’ Di Maria), Luisao, David Luiz (88’ Adu), Leo – Katsouranis, Petit – Maxi Pereira, Rui Costa, C.Rodríguez – Nuno Gomes (75’ O.Cardozo). (bench: Butt, Edcarlos, Nelson, Nuno Assis). All: Camacho.
MILAN (4-3-2-1): Dida – Bonera, Nesta, Kaladze, Serginho (46’ Maldini) – Brocchi (51’ Gourcuff), Pirlo, Gattuso – Kaká, Seedorf (73’ Oddo) – Gilardino. (bench: Kalac, Cafu, Favalli, Ronaldo). Coach: Ancelotti.


In the other match of the day, Lazio lost at home against Olympiakos, and are now seeing the next round of the Champions League sail far far away. And to think that everything started on the right track for the Biancocelesti, who had gotten the lead thanks to Goran Pandev. However, the Lazio train rapidly derailed, because the Greek team had left the goals of Luciano Galletti and Darko Kovacevic on the Rome station tracks. A Kovacevic who coincidentally, not so long ago, was playing precisely for… Lazio.

It became rapidly obvious that this was going to turn into a very nervous match, way too nervous to expect to see any beautiful plays really. Both teams multiplied errors in the offensive zone, scared of trying one-touch football for fear of losing the ball and leaving the defense exposed. This match was too important to be lost, for Olympiakos in particular because the Greeks would have been quite happy with a draw in the end, given that their opponents on the last matchday were Werder Bremen at home, while Lazio had to contend with Real Madrid in Spain. As a result, very little happened for the first half hour, Stefano Rocchi and Goran Pandev way too isolated in the Lazio attack.

At minute 30 however, the Biancocelesti managed to take the lead with their first real shot of the game: a long ball forward was flicked by Stefano Mauri onto the path of Rocchi on the left. The Lazio striker seemed to have saved the ball on the line just in time, for a backpass to Goran Pandev in the center and an easily deposited open goal. Replays later showed however that the ball might have been over the line. No matter though, 1-0 Lazio.

Delio Rossi’s men were now in an advantageous position, in that they could put the game on ice and exploit the spaces left to them on counter-attack. However, Olympiakos’ reply didn’t take very long to come, it was so fast in fact that they barely had time to be emotionally shaken by conceding the lead: in the 35th, Lazio lost the ball to Lomana Lua Lua, who spotted Ieroklis Stoltidis in the center. Aleksandar Kolarov was hypnotized by the ball and forgot to mark his left-side: how surprising that is exactly where Stoltidis’s pass went, and Luciano Galletti had little trouble beating Marco Ballotta on the first post with a hard but accurate shot. 1-1.

The half ended on a tied scoreline, not before Lazio had a slight chance to regain the lead through Pandev, but Antonios Nikopolidis got the deflection. After the break, Lazio came back on the field clearly with offensive intentions. First Guglielmo Stendardo was a hairbreadth away from getting a winning tap-in with an open net, had it not been for Christos Patsatzoglou’s intervention following a Cristian Ledesma corner-kick. Then minutes later with Lazio pushing up, Mauri made a deep pass for Pandev in space, but the Macedonian striker’s shot was too weak to worry the Greek keeper,

In the 64th however, pitch black night descended onto Lazio: from Stoltidis to Predrag Djordjevic on the left, deep run down the wing, pass across for Darko Kovacevic, goal. 2-1 Olympiakos. Lazio pushed all their troops forward to get the equalizer, to no avail. Now the entire Biancocelesti hopes for next round qualification lie in the improbable win against Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu, while Werder Bremen must not win against Olympiakos in Matchday 6. For Delio Rossi, I’d say it is time to start praying…


S.S. Lazio
[Match Highlights]
 Olympiacos CFP
GOALSCORERS: 30’ Pandev (L), 35’ Galletti (O), 64’ Kovacevic (O)
LAZIO (4-3-1-2): Ballotta – Behrami (77’ Scaloni), Stendardo, Siviglia, Kolarov (63’ De Silvestri) – Mudingayi, Ledesma, Mutarelli (71′ Meghni) – Mauri – Pandev, Rocchi. (bench: Muslera, Firmani, Manfredini, Makinwa). Coach: Rossi.
OLYMPIAKOS (4-3-2-1): Nikopolidis – Torosidis, Zewlakow, Antzas, Pantos – Patsatzoglou (75’ Mendrinos), Ledesma, Stoltidis – Galletti, Djordjevic (93’ Mitroglou) – Lua Lua (56’ Kovacevic). (bench: Sifakis, Archubi, Nunez, Konstantinou). Coach: Lemonis.


Posted in Lazio, Milan, UEFA Champions League |

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