AC Milan and FC Barcelona will go to the Camp Nou next Tuesday with a place in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in the balance after an absorbing goalless draw.
Josep Guardiola's visitors dominated for long spells and Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi impressed throughout with their mesmerising footwork, yet the hosts' rearguard, marshalled superbly by Alessandro Nesta, defended resolutely. But for errant finishing, the Rossoneri might have sneaked a win.
Milan had vowed to press the holders high up the pitch and their ploy almost paid dividends within three minutes when Barcelona ceded possession outside their own area. Kevin-Prince Boateng's speculative shot looped into the path of Zlatan Ibrahimović, and the striker showed great presence of mind to head the ball square to the unmarked Robinho. Just eight metres out, the Brazilian skied his volley.
Barcelona were not quiet for long and Messi was soon leaving a trail of Milan players in his wake as he forayed first down the left flank and then through the centre, carrying the ball at pace as if it was on a string. Though the 24-year-old scuffed a free-kick and a tenth-minute shot, Christian Abbiati fumbled the latter and was relieved to see Daniel Alves prod wide from close range.
The Azulgrana were beginning to dominate, Xavi and Messi weaving tight, passing patterns through the heart of Milan's defence. Abbiati had to be alive to Xavi's shot after a quick one-two with Messi, while Nesta and Luca Antonini made crucial interventions. It was not all one-way traffic, however, and Milan should have scored on 20 minutes when Massimo Ambrosini dispossessed Xavi. Clarence Seedorf's slide-rule pass left Ibrahimović with only Víctor Valdés to beat; the goalkeeper easily gathered the scuffed shot.
As the match wore on the hosts found themselves increasingly pegged back in their own half but their dogged determination continued to frustrate the reigning champions, whose midfielder Andrés Iniesta sent a long shot fizzing wide early in the second half. Massimiliano Allegri opted to shake things up by bringing on Stephan El Shaarawy for Robinho and the Italian Under-21 international injected more pace into the hosts' play.
Before long, though, the visitors were reverting to type and Nesta had to use foul means to prevent Messi from snaking into the area again. The Argentinian forward curled the resulting free-kick just over. With the visitors determined to plunder an away goal, Guardiola replaced Iniesta with the lively Tello, who sent a vicious shot wide on 73 minutes.
Carles Puyol soon came close to breaking the deadlock, glancing Xavi's corner narrowly wide of goal, but as Barcelona turned the screw, the Rossoneri's two banks of four continued to resist. Daniele Bonera twice made timely tackles on Messi, Ambrosini contributed a wonderful block to deflect the same player's goal-bound shot wide and Antonini, once again, recovered well to deny Tello after a fine Abbiati save with three minutes to go. It is still all to play for.