Man of the Match: Of Milan’s three goals, Stephan El Shaawary’s stands out. It was the one that didn’t need major help from a Zenit player to find nylon. El Shaawary’s goal didn’t need help from his own players, either. The Milan attacker took a pass on the left wing, and dribbled through Zenit’s defense before slotting the Rossoneri’s second goal just inside the right post.
It was the 19 year old’s first Champions League goal, part of a day where he continuously created trouble for Zenit defenders. With Milan spending most of the match defending a lead, El Shaawary played as much as a conventional wide midfielder as attacker. But when he went forward, he created huge problems for Zenit.
Packaged for takeaway:
- What do you get when two struggling but talented teams meet? Add the stakes of Champions League, and you get an unbalanced game with wild swings, a form of soccer chaos. Large swathes of this match were characterized by one team’s control meeting the other’s failings. There was never a time where both teams were at their best, and while that produced a compelling match, neither team was actually that good.
- The sides began with near-identical setups – four man defenses, three-man midfields, two wingers flanking a central forward – but only one team showed up at the opening whistle.
- Milan started strong, their energy allowing them to move quickly into attack, usually down left side worked by Stephan El Shaawary and, coming from the middle, Bojan Krkic. Attacking midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng was staying so high (right behind Krkic) and came back so little, Milan’s formation played like a 4-2-4.
- In the 13th minute, Milan’s ambition met a little luck. Zenit had just started coming into the match when midfielder Viktor Fayzulin committed a ill-advised foul on Urby Emanuelson, the Milan attacker cutting into the middle from his wide right position. Emanuelson’s restart from 24 yards out got mostly wall but still deflected up and toward goal, with goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev unable to get back from his move to the left to prevent a fortunate opener.
- Malafeev really should have stopped it. After hitting the wall, the ball seemed to hang in the air and briefly looked like it would go well wide. But the spin sent the ball diving back toward goal. Malafeev was slow to react, his momentum toward the opposite post leaving him off-balance.
- Four minutes later, Milan doubled their lead, with El Shaawary dribbling in from the left, beating Fayzulin and defender Nicolas Lombaerts before putting the Rossoneri’s second goal inside Malafeev’s left post.
- That wasn’t the first time El Shaawary had done damage. Minutes earlier, the 19-year-old was given too much space to run at Zenit right back Aleksandr Anyukov. He was able to cut in and, although Anyukov got a foot to the ball, create a chance for Krkic. Eventually, Luciano Spalletti would have to switch Hulk away from that flank, getting his more defensively responsible winger, Vladimir Bystrov, onto El Shaawary’s side.
- It was an absolutely inept start from Zenit. Milan was the better side at the opening whistle, but they weren’t executing anything so remarkable that Zenit couldn’t have held out. The first goal was fortunate, but it was one that came from Milan control drawing a bad foul. On the second goal, defenders just blindly went into tackles, come up with nothing, and couldn’t stop a run that was inelegant if successful.
- It wasn’t until the 22nd minute, six minutes after Milan’s second goal, that Zenit started to pick up their energy. By then, you could see Milan already adjusting. El Shaawary and Emanuelson were sitting deeper on the flanks. When Zenit set up in the final third, Milan’s highest man (Krkic) was playing off the last midfielder instead of the defense.
- That approach looked set to preserve Milan’s two-goal lead into half before a breakdown in the second minute of injury time. Ignazio Abate was drawn away from his place at right back, opening up too much room to the left of Cristián Zapata. Roman Shirokov found Hulk in the channel, the Brazilian’s left-footed shot beating Christian Abbati for Zenit’s opener.
- What a huge difference a goal makes. Without Hulk’s score, Zenit goes into half time with nothing positive to take from the first 45 minutes. Down only one, Zenit goes into the locker room on a positive note. They don’t have to start the second half in panic mode.
- Four minutes into the second half, Zenit was even. Shirokov beat his mark, Riccardo Montolivo, on a corner. Hulk’s ball swung in perfectly, drawing Abbiati off his line, giving Shirokov the entire goal to finish his equalizer.
- Zenit would dominate the next 20 minutes, forcing Max Allegri into a change. Early in the half he had brought on Giampaolo Pazzini for Krkic – a like for like – but on the verge of conceding a go-ahead goal, he changed the shape. Emanuelson was off and Antonio Nocerino, a central midfielder, was in. He’d play on the one side of a diamond-esque midfield. El Shaawary played high on the other side, Montolivo above Nigel de Jong in the middle.
- The change worked. Almost immediately, Milan started seeing more of the ball, able to possess for meaningful periods of time and not have to play in their own end.
- The move almost worked too well. Spalletti immediately responded. In the 72nd minute, Bystov made way for a central midfielder, Konstantin Zyryanov.
- The change never had time to take effect. In the 75th minute, sloppy play from Zenit coming out of their own end let to a turnover. Milan swung the ball ahead of a Montolivo cross. Pazzini’s attempted redirect went off defender Tomas Hubocan’s left arm and into Malafeev’s net. It was the second huge piece of luck Milan’d gotten, the difference between being down one and up 3-2.
- As you’d expect, Spelletti immediately changed again, bringing on a forward (Maksim Kanunnikov) for a midfielder (Fayzulni). Allegri responded by bringing in a third central defender, Mario Yepes coming on for Boateng.
- Allegri’s change killed off the match. Any time Zenit set up in attack, they’d see a box crowded with red and black between them and goal. Attempts to play in from wide almost never got past the first man. That match was over.
- It’s a huge win for Milan, if a very lucky one. There’s no arguing that they got two goals out of pure fortune. Both the first and third game from otherwise innocuous plays. Milan gets three points, but it’s hard to say if they earned or stumbled into them.
- The Rossoneri do deserve credit for the energy they brought from the get-go. In the preview, we talked about the morose aura that’s enveloped the team. None of that was evident tonight. There was no self pity, only effort.
- For Zenit, it’s a crushing loss, but they did little to win this match. They never led, only played well for a 30 minute span in the middle, and needed a first half wakeup call to even get in the match. Against a Milan team that hasn’t been that good, they allowed the game to be taken from them