Trust that it’s in the back of everyone’s mind at Milan. Games like these aren’t taken for granted. Not anymore. Caution is exercised.
While La Gazzetta dello Sport asked how far this ‘No Limits’ Milan could go after their ‘perfect’ 4-0 win against Arsenal in the first leg of their Last 16 Champions League tie at San Siro, coach Massimiliano Allegri was only prepared to look as far as their next encounter. Believe it or not, there was a tinge of regret in his voice. “We had loads of chances after the fourth goal and when there’s a chance to score, you have to take it. 4-0 is an important result but a couple of goals more would have been better.”
No team has ever come back from such a deficit in the Champions League, but Milan knows better than to approach Tuesday evening’s second leg at the Emirates as though it were a foregone conclusion. Thoughts inevitably turn to the events of April 7, 2004 and the coast of La Coruña where it was said they somehow contrived to throw an estimated €20m in apparently guaranteed prize money in the Atlantic Ocean.
“A superb Milan”, to borrow Marca’s headline, had “pulverized Deportivo in 10 minutes” of the second half of their quarterfinal first leg at San Siro two weeks earlier. True, they had been caught napping early on by Walter Pandiani, who’d put the visitors in front, but instead of waking up, Milan kept dreaming and delivered a performance full of imagination that spoke of a beautiful mind. They won 4-1 and their crown as reigning champions of Europe definitely fit. “This Milan is magic,” gushed L’Équipe.
Carlo Ancelotti decided to take a balanced overall view of the game. He allowed himself a few jokes with the press pack and even looked ahead to the prospect of a re-match of sorts in the semifinal with Porto’s up-and-coming manager José Mourinho, who he’d beaten in the European Super Cup at the beginning of the season.
But Deportivo weren’t already an afterthought. Far from it. He expressed a concern at Milan’s habit of giving away goals too cheaply, especially on set-pieces and insisted they’d have to be careful in La Coruña. There was no presumption.
The night before the second leg Milan got the warning they needed to focus on the task ahead. Ancelotti sat down in the Melía Maria Pita Hotel to watch Real Madrid play Monaco. The Spanish giants had a 4-2 lead from the first leg at the Bernabéu, but were knocked out after a stunning 3-1 defeat in Monte Carlo.
“I absolutely didn’t expect them to be eliminated,” Ancelotti said. “It’s a result no one expected, a further demonstration that in Europe you can never be too careful. You must always play with the utmost attention. I hope my players also saw what happened. It’s a lesson they need to memorize.”
If Milan did, then they certainly forgot it in a hurry. Pandiani again opened the scoring right after kickoff and the fightback was on. El Rifle, as he was known, had established his reputation at the Riazor by coming out all guns blazing to get his team out of trouble before.
Three years earlier, he emerged from the bench for Deportivo when they were 3-0 down against Paris Saint-Germain to score a hat trick, which, along with a Diego Tristan strike, helped turn the game around, as they won 4-3. “Even today the people of La Coruña stop me in the street and remind me of what happened on March 7, 2001,” he said.
Pandiani didn’t do as much of it on his own again this time. A Juan Carlos Valeron header, followed by an emphatic roof-of-the-net finish from Albert Luque then a deflected effort by Fran conspired to overturn the biggest losing margin in Champions League history.
Another chapter had been added to the legend of Super Depor. Javier Irureta, their coach, had promised to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela if his side got through and he was as good as his word. Milan, by contrast, made a walk of shame back home. Ancelotti couldn’t believe it. “After having seen what happened to Real, there were certainly all the signals to stay concentrated,” he mumbled. “Instead something inexplicable and unforeseen occurred. I didn’t expect an epilogue like this.”
Milan, of course, is no stranger to what Ancelotti would later term ‘blackouts.’ Recall how they lost 4-0 in the first leg of their UEFA Cup semifinal to Borussia Dortmund in 2002. Then who can forget Istanbul in 2005, when they let slip a 3-0 halftime lead and lost the Champions League final to Liverpool on penalties.
It seems unlikely Milan will collapse again. Their dismantling of Arsenal in the first leg has been nothing short of a springboard propelling them out of a month-long slump and into an ominous run of form. They look imperious at the moment.
The first half of their 3-1 win at Cesena a couple of weeks ago was described by Silvio Berlusconi as the best he’d seen in years. Then came Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Palermo away at the Renzo Barbera, a bogey ground where they hadn’t won for six years. It was remarkable for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 13-minute hat trick, which makes it 18 goals in 20 games for Serie A’s Capocannoniere, but also because it came after title rivals Juventus were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Chievo.
Any sense of injustice that remained from their top of the table clash a week earlier, which had also ended 1-1, after the referee failed to see that Sulley Muntari’s effort had been saved by goalkeeper Gigi Buffon when it had already crossed the line, was to some extent eased, as they stayed in first place and, for now, can enjoy the comfort of a three-point gap between themselves and the chasing Old Lady.
Preparing for a game like Tuesday’s, though, is not easy. Rather it’s fraught with difficulty. Rest players and Milan risks opening the door for Arsenal to get back into the tie. Set up defensively to contain the opposition and they might then find it difficult to get out of reverse gear when a goal is conceded. Play their natural game and attack, and that might just leave them too open.
Arsenal, however, knows that they only have one option and that’s to go for it. They’ve come from behind in three of their last five games, clawing themselves back from 2-0 down to beat Tottenham 5-2 in the North London derby then showing character to win 2-1 against Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday after conceding the first goal. The second leg with Milan could be a dead rubber. Then again, Arsenal could be a dead ringer for Depor in 2004 and out-do what even they and anyone else has ever achieved. It seems improbable, very improbable in fact. But where there’s life, there’s hope.
Five Milan players who were in the squad that night in La Coruña are still at the club: Christian Abbiati, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Rino Gattuso and Pippo Inzaghi. Not all of them will play on Tuesday at the Emirates either because of injury or their ineligibility. But they have an important role to play in the dressing room. They won’t want to let a Deportivo or worse happen again, will they?