As I took in a second viewing of Barca’s dismantling of Manchester United, I simply couldn’t resist the comparison everyone is talking about. Is this Barcelona team better than the AC Milan team of the nineties that I grew up with as a child? Now I admit, it will be virtually impossible for me to come to an unbiased conclusion. Sacchi and Cappello’s Milan were my introduction and education to football as I know it, and frankly there could have been no better teacher. But Pep’s Barca has now arrived into some rarefied air, three straight La Liga titles and 2 out of 3 in the CL means that the great Milan squad of my youth may have finally found a true rival.
The most important part of each of these teams for me is the foundation. Both teams are built on a foundation of home grown, domestic talent in almost all areas of the pitch. While both teams have their exceptional foreigners, when you compare the core of both teams it is easy to draw parallels: Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta, Tassotti, and Donadoni matching up with the likes of Xavi, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, and Busquets, a phenomenon that we may not see again for some time. You can also argue that without those exceptional foreigners to add some flair to the teams, success wouldn’t be assured. For me the biggest difference makers are Messi and Van Basten. While their styles are a bit different, they both add tremendous value to their sides, and are both amazing to watch in their own right.
Coaching also has a significant role to play and while Sacchi was a visionary, I personally prefer the comparison of Pep and Cappello who were both groomed in their respective Club systems. Many have argued that without the Milan team we all know and love Barca and Pep couldn’t have created their modern day tactics. The pressing tactic is evident in both teams, and the ability of both teams to compress the field is truly extraordinary. There were times against Man United that Xavi, with the ball at his feet, seemingly had infinite short passing options, and Milan was no different. Both teams are also adept at attacking from all areas of the pitch forcing opponents to be weary of threats from all angles. An opponent could neutralize Messi or Van Basten only to leave them exposed to the likes of Gullit and Villa.
While the similarities in coaching, personnel and play style seem infinite, there is one difference that will always swing my vote to my beloved Rossoneri; defense. Being a fan of the Italian game I simply have an admiration for good strong tactical defense and Milan were simply the best. Starting off with the greatest Club defense ever assembled in Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, and Maldini the team was built on the mentality of not conceding, always remembering if you don’t concede you don’t lose. But it simply didn’t start or end with the defense, Sacchi’s Milan and then subsequently Cappello’s Milan, defended in all areas. Opposing coaches and players used to say that if you won the ball, it appeared as though Milan had put up a wall of eleven players making it impossible to move the ball out of your defensive third; it is with this mentality that true Champions are built.
Barca chooses a different route, and while Milan was adept in possession, Barca are mad scientists. If you keep the ball 70% of the time, as Barca did on Saturday, then you rarely have to defend and what better way to mask a weaker point of your squad then by making them defend less and pass more? It is truly genius and when you see it in action, the movement off the ball, it is mesmerizing. For some it is more appealing than defense, and while I can’t argue, I sleep easier knowing if someone slips through that Baresi or Maldini are there at the ready to dispossess and kick start an attack in the blink of an eye.
Pep and Barcelona have the ability to do something special in the next year, they can cement their place alongside the great AC Milan, or they can fade into the sunset. While I always want my team to be top of the heap, it is hard to argue against Barcelona’s chances. They are following the same formula Milan did, keep the core intact, add key personnel and keep the engine running smooth and efficiently. If and how they achieve that is up to them, and while I may root against them, simply for my love of Milan, the fan in me knows that for every amazing feat someone out there is ready to step up to the challenge. Even if they find a way to displace Milan as the greatest Club team of all time, it will simply up to Milan to take it up a level when the time is right!
I leave with you a few thoughts, and the ability to make your own choice, but just imagine how amazing a match between these two teams would be? Messi vs Baresi, Maldini vs Alves, or Van Basten vs Puyol. In the end for me, defense always wins, and Milan would probably come out with a narrow victory, then again when the World wrote them off against Barcelona in all those years ago we all remember what happened…has the pupil become the master?