| Ludovic Giuly after scoring during Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final against AC Milan at the San Siro on Tuesday. The Spaniards won the first leg 1-0. (AFP)
All romantics are stirred by the thought of Paris in springtime, none more so than the aesthetes’ XI that is Ronaldinho’s Barcelona.
This fine collection of ball-loving footballers on Tuesday night took an elegant stride towards the Champions League final in the French capital on May 17.
A Frenchman, Ludovic Giuly, struck the goal that has helped the Spanish champions along the road to the Stade de France, but his 57th-minute opportunity was created by a pass of supreme beauty from Ronaldinho.
When the brilliant Brazilian was substituted late on, the howls of derision that tumbled down from all corners of the San Siro must have resembled manna from heaven for Barcelona’s No. 10. Milan fans were simply baying at their nemesis.
Until the moment came to release Giuly, Ronaldinho had been tightly marked. Milan’s approach to the World Player of the Year was simple: whenever the Brazilian received possession, he was immediately surrounded by a red-and-black ambush party led by that bearded pirate, Gennaro Gattuso.
Gattuso, then Jaap Stam, clipped Ronaldinho’s gilded heels. Ronaldinho raised himself from the floor, glanced questioningly at referee Alain Sars, dismissively at his markers and then got on with fighting fire with flair.
“Ronaldino’s a player who moves a lot, and is hard to control, but I don’t think he caused us any particular problems,” said Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti.
Not until the 57th minute.
Then he destroyed Ancelotti’s hosts. On the night that San Siro reported record receipts of 3.2 million euros, Ronaldinho’s sudden contribution was priceless. Gattuso stood in his way, snarling away, snapping at Ronaldinho’s ankles. No problem. Ronaldinho simply shifted weight from one foot to the other, sending Gattuso towards the Duomo while he headed off to La Scala.
And so the drama’s defining episode unfolded. Ronaldinho lifted through a magnificent pass for Giuly, who impressed in controlling the ball and then sweeping it past Dida, Milan’s ’keeper.
It was an away goal crafted by the gods. The visiting supporters, swelled by a number of English aficionados, sang their songs of praise, soon rolling out a series of “Oles”.
Milan face the toughest of rescue missions at the Nou Camp next week. “We don’t need a miracle,” added Ancelotti, “but we will need something extraordinary.”
The problem for Milan coach is that Barcelona boast those capable of the extraordinary. Even in the absence of Chelsea’s nemesis, Lionel Messi, and talents such as Deco and Henrik Larsson, Barcelona exude a threat because they have Ronaldinho and a deft front-runner in Samuel Eto’.
The huge banner among the Catalan fans that read “Berlusconi: Game Over” may be slightly premature but few will back against Ronaldinho, Eto’ and company not reaching the final, where they would play either Arsenal or Villarreal. The dream of the club season climaxing with Ronaldinho taking on Thierry Henry lives on.
Yet until Ronaldinho really began conjuring his magic and Giuly’s goal set Milan a real challenge, the San Siro had been at its cacophonous best. Every challenge from Gattuso on Ronaldinho was lauded to the steel rafters, every elegant pass from Andrea Pirlo earned rich applause, and every break by Kaka or Andriy Shevchenko ratcheted the volume up higher.
Ronaldinho briefly threatened from two free kicks, Giuly twice went close, but the first half was spiced with moments of promise for Milan.
Alberto Gilardino buzzed around busily up-front, even eluding Oleguer and Rafael Marquez before striking a post. Clarence Seedorf, who seems part of the fabric of Champions League life, then clipped in a marvellous cross which the stooping Shevchenko headed downwards and goalwards, only for Victor Valdes to save.
Then Kaka raced through, seemingly sent crashing to earth by Carles Puyol’s sliding tackle. Such was the blur of legs that the referee assumed Puyol had caught Kaka, although no contact was made. Barcelona’s captain was still booked, and when he accidentally handled early in the second half, Gattuso screamed for further sanction.
Gattuso got the comeuppance such unsporting conduct deserved shortly before the hour-mark. Barcelona had just survived a serious scare when Gilardino terribly wasted Kaka’s terrific ball and shot wide from close range. But when the ball came into Ronaldinho’s magical domain, Gattuso was humiliated.
Barcelona fans revelled in their No.10’s sleight of foot and Giuly’s finish. Their excitement levels rose higher moments later when Ronaldinho ran 50 yards before hitting a shot, which beat Dida but not the post.
Milan were getting desperate, knowing how dangerous Barcelona will also be in the Nou Camp. Ripples of discontent swept through the San Siro, particularly when substitute Massimo Ambrosini missed a routine chance with 10 minutes remaining.
The drums still banged, and the flags still waved, but the steam was gradually being squeezed out of the Italians. Ronaldinho almost finished them off completely with a run terminated only illegally, by a panic-stricken Alessandro Nesta. From the resultant free kick, Ronaldinho sent the ball swerving just over.
Paolo Maldini, on for Pirlo, almost rescued his beloved Milan with a header but Valdes was equal to the challenge. Then Kaka drilled a low shot just wide.
“We paid for our lack of precision in front of goal,” added Ancelotti. Milan will need to find a cutting edge if they are to stop the purists reaching Paris.