Graham Hunter gives us the Scoop on today's Milan vs Barça match. History, statistics and predictions in this week's Scoop. By Kay Murray.
By Kay Murray
Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham) is a highly respected journalist and a well-known voice among English-speaking La Liga fans. Based in Barcelona since 2001, Graham has covered Spanish football for international broadcasters and newspapers and is one of UEFA’s official writers.
Graham’s access to one of the most famous teams in football history is unrivalled. His knowledge and inside information on FC Barcelona prompted him to write the critically acclaimed ‘Barça - The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’, which was released last year. The book is the inside story of how the team came to redefine how the game is played and comes highly recommended for all football fans.
Ahead of Wednesday’s clash between the Catalan giants and AC Milan at the San Siro, I was lucky enough to get the views of one of European football’s most entertaining journalists.
Despite their poor run of form in the first half of the season, Milan have picked things up and are now third in the Serie A table. What are Barça expecting from them?
Irrespective of the dead-heading, to use a gardening term, which took place at Milan in the summer and the relative youth/inexperience in the current squad, the Barça players regard Milan with respect. It's an institution and the very name is scarred on Catalan consciousness, particularly because of the European Cup final of 1994. Just look at how tight the two games were en route to winning the UCL in 2006, immensely competitive. Even last season, there was, in theory, a decent distance between the two teams but Milan were immensely competitive and hard to break down. One or two of the players, Puyol, Xavi in particular but Pique too, if you take the name of his baby into account, hold the place in a kind of reverence and I believe Puyol was close to a move there. When Demetrio Albertini moved from the San Siro to Camp Nou, although his stay was short, he brought values, attitudes and behaviour which impressed all the current Barça staff who were at the club back then. Equally, at international level, Spain has beaten Italy within 90 competitive minutes once since 1920, so the whole mystique of Italians being someone you want to take seriously in the Champions League will pervade this tie. That said, Barça expect to win.
There’s a lot of talk about Messi’s inability to score against Italian sides from open play. What is it that prevents such a prolific goalscorer from netting against Italian sides?
I'm very opposed to these kind of stats or statements which float about every so often. In four games against Milan last season he had two goals, penalties still count, three assists, two draws and two wins. Whether he scored from open play or not, seems to me, irrelevant. I answer like this for a couple of specific reasons. It used to be English teams. Prior to the 2009 UCL final in Rome all the UK media were trotting out the number of minutes he'd played against English clubs without scoring despite the fact that, for example, he'd been man of the match by a distance in a 2-1 win at Chelsea and was patently ready to change the stat at any moment. Lo and behold he scored that brilliant header against Van Der Sar and then another in the UCL final two years later and umpteen against the Arsenal. At the time I asked: George Best and Ryan Giggs never played in a World Cup final tournament. Did that diminish their greatness? No. I'm not in the least defensive about him, his stats speak for themselves. But I'd also point out that the thing he always, always cares most about, like Cristiano for that matter, is winning, not scoring.
What do you think of the term ‘Messidependencia’?
I hate the phrase Messidependencia. Nothing more than an easy phrase made to serve headline space or the title of a TV feature. A handle. It seems to me to ignore the fact that if you have an outright phenomenon in your side, possibly the best attacking player ever, then he's going to dominate the scoring, how the team focuses its attacks, who decides tough ties. The people who use Messidependencia would be a lot more scathing if FCB had a player of that calibre and he wasn't performing or he was mis-used. I think it's clear that it takes a certain player to play around him. Pedro, Xavi, Tello, Iniesta, Cesc thrive - Alexis, Zlatan can't handle it. Villa, well he just needs extended fitness and a chance to start more often. It's also something of a null debate. Because of his youth, fitness and vigour FCB don't often have to win without him. When that does become a requirement we'll begin to discover who can or can't step up and pick up his slack.
Despite early worries about his fitness, El Sharaawy is back for this one. How is he viewed back in Barcelona?
El Sharaawy is someone I studied closely when I was at Malaga v Milan this season. I've been watching him for a little while now and the improvement this season, attitude, pace, concentration and the ability to take chances his talent provides more regularly has been notable. He's almost as dangerous down the right side of the pitch as he is in the middle and he's got pace which will trouble most defenders. Love his confidence and it's clear that FCB will have taken serious notes about how to avoid him doing them damage.
Xavi is also back for this one following his recent muscular problems. Big boost for Barça.
Xavi is, as you suggest, a very important returning player for this tie. He's been in golden form creatively this season and was one of the foremost players stung by how things went last season. Because the team is fitter and sharper than last season there's more movement in front of him, the ball is won back in better positions thanks to better pressing and Xavi is enjoying his football greatly. As I said, this is one of the clubs there was a serious risk of him joining at one stage and, speaking from experience, Xavi will reserve a good performance for Milan, whether that be home or away. Not sure he'll love the pitch at the San Siro but he'll attempt to dictate the tempo as usual and take some of the sting out of Milan.
Barça were held 0-0 at the San Siro last year. What’s your prediction for this one?
This time I think that we might see a 2-1 to Barça or a 2-2. Hope it's a good game though, that's all that's important.
"Barça - The Making of the Greatest Team in the World" is published by Back Page Press.