Much of the build-up to the eagerly-awaited UEFA Champions League semi-final between AC Milan and FC Barcelona centred around the sultry South American skills of Ronaldinho and Kaká. In what proved to be an exciting first instalment, it was the visiting Brazilian who justified his status as European and World Player of the Year with a performance of pure class.
Milan unquestionably had the better of the first half, Alberto Gilardino hitting the post with a snapshot from a tight angle and Víctor Valdés denying Andriy Shevchenko with a wonderful block shortly afterwards. But you can't keep a good man down, and there can be no denying that Ronaldinho is a good man. He was at the heart of virtually every attacking move for the Spanish champions and gave the first glimpse of his quality on the quarter-hour when he tricked his way into space and passed to Mark van Bommel, who scuffed a shot harmlessly at Dida.
The visitors were subdued for the rest of the opening period, although Ronaldinho did tee up both Samuel Eto'o, who drove straight at Dida, and Ludovic Giuly, who followed suit. After the break, though, Barcelona came to life, with Ronaldinho dropping deep to receive the ball and exploit the pockets of space left by an off-form Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, who, after an excellent first half, almost completely disappeared from view. For all of Pirlo's probing, Milan had nothing concrete to show - Barça, on the other hand, took advantage of Ronaldinho's second-half prompting.
The game's only goal was no less than the away team deserved and merited its magnificent semi-final setting. Milan had cleared another Barcelona attack and there was no apparent danger, but the ball fell to Barcelona's No10 and with Gattuso closing fast, Ronaldinho dispatched a first-time chip into the only space left unguarded by the Rossoneri defence. The angled pass was such that Giuly seemed as surprised as anyone to have an opportunity materialise before his eyes, yet he sprang the offside trap, raced into the area and volleyed emphatically past Dida.
All but the 3,000 or so Spanish supporters gathered behind Dida's goal fell silent, and with Milan numbed by the setback, Carlo Ancelotti's men almost conceded a second shortly afterwards. Clarence Seedorf lost possession in his own half and Barcelona surged forward, Giuly finding Ronaldinho, who evaded two challenges before striking a low shot that eluded Dida but came back off the far post. Milan knew they had been let off. Indeed, the home fans breathed a further sigh of relief when Ronaldinho was offered the opportunity to demonstrate his ability at set-pieces, his free-kick dipping over the wall but also narrowly over the bar.
Kaká was Milan's most potent threat and at the root of the hosts' two best chances. His threaded pass into the box towards the end was a sublime example of his precocious vision. Unfortunately, Massimo Ambrosini dragged his attempt wide with only Valdés to beat. Kaká then elected to shoot himself after jinking past three Barça defenders but snatched at his effort.
The 23-year-old is certainly one of Europe's most exciting talents and perhaps a pretender to his compatriot Ronadinho's throne, but there is no question who is the reigning monarch, even if the man himself remains modest. "I don't think I won the personal duel with Kaká, especially because we have only played one half of the tie," he said. "He played very well." Unfortunately for Milan, so did Ronaldinho.
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