By Ivan Carvalho at the San Siro
A first-half header by Ukrainian forward Andriy Shevchenko secured AC Milan a 1-0 victory at home to FC Barcelona and sole position at the top of Group F with three wins from three matches.
The match was a homecoming of sorts for Barcelona's Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard who enjoyed a successful stint for the Italian club playing alongside Carlo Ancelotti, now at the helm of the Rossoneri.
Rijkaard was restricted by a string of injuries to key personnel, with Ludovic Giuly, Gerard López, Edmílson, Thiago Motta, Gabri García and Sylvinho all missing. Centre-back Rafael Márquez started in central midfield, and Carles Puyol was selected after recovering from a knock picked up in the Primera División leader's victory over RCD Espanyol on Saturday.
With Rijkaard sending out an attack-minded team spearheaded by Ronaldinho, Henrik Larsson and Samuel Eto'o, Ancelotti called on the services of stopper Jaap Stam, back after a month-long lay-off, to reinforce Milan's already formidable back line.
Cheered on by a near-capacity crowd, the Dutchman showed his worth in the opening half, snuffing out several threats and allowing Cafu and Paolo Maldini to advance along the wings in attack. Milan looked the more aggressive side in the early stages, and had an opportunity to open the scoring when Brazilian midfield player Kaká fed a charging Shevchenko. The Ukrainian got past Oleguer Presas but saw his drive blocked by the feet of Barcelona goalkeeper Víctor Valdés.
The Catalan team responded when midfield player Deco took advantage of a miscue by Andrea Pirlo and delivered a cross in to Larsson, but the Swede headed harmlessly over goal. In the 18th minute Larsson was again the target when Eto'o charged through the centre of Milan's defence and teed up the striker, whose driven shot hit the crossbar.
Milan countered with a fine break which concluded with Shevchenko losing the ball to Valdés after chesting it down in the box. He made amends a few minutes later, however, as the Ukrainian athletically outleapt two Barcelona defenders to head in a curling cross from Cafu. That effort ignited a flurry of Barcelona forays lead by Ronaldinho, but the Brazilian playmaker lacked precision with several attempts, including a soft shot at Dida after an excellent 35th-minute one-two with Larsson.
Just after the restart, Milan threatened as Kaká found Inzaghi in space between three defenders, only for the Italy international to lose the ball amid a crowd of bodies, allowing Valdés to fall on it. The Barcelona goalkeeper had little reprieve as his back line conceded space to Kaká and Shevchenko, the latter able to drive a powerful shot just wide of goal as the hour approached.
A somewhat frustrated Ronaldinho then tested Dida when he blasted a low drive which his compatriot did well to parry away. Unhappy with his squad's execution, Rijkaard substituted Cameroon striker Eto'o for Andres Iniesta in the hope of finding the equaliser. The swap spurred Barça forward and the young Spaniard should have done better with his shot after being well provided by Ronaldinho.
Ancelotti responded by introducing Massimo Ambrosini and Serginho for Inzaghi and Kaká, yet Barcelona continued to pour forward. Juliano Belletti, outstanding all night, first fired an angled shot wide to the left of goal, before Iniesta's shot from the right hit the crossbar after the substitute had been found in space in the final minute - a miss which summed up Barcelona's night.