Tuesday, in the Dubai (UAE) Challenge Cup, Italy’s AC Milan defeated Spanish Football’s La Liga leaders, Real Madrid, by a comfortable 4-2 score. The friendly game did not count toward Real’s consecutive game winning streak which only tallies competitive matches.
Each side fielded their stars for no more than their contractually required appearance minutes and tried to balance starters and subs on squads that handled no more than a half of play. Both teams substituted liberally with the Spanish side changing eight of their starters at the beginning of the second half while the Italians made five modifications. Further substitutions ensued as the second half evolved, leaving the teams with rarely used players on the pitch for substantial spans.
The meaningless game seemed to be of more import to Milan, who is in eighth place in Serie A and still in rebuilding mode with new coach Pippo Inzaghi. To Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid side, who have won four competitive trophies in 2014 and are cruising through the Champions League and Copa del Rey, so far, and leading La Liga this season, the effort came across as an unavoidable professional commitment.
Given the World Cup qualifiers and Brazil’s championship matches in the spring and summer, the current Euro qualifiers and domestic championships games played so far this fall and winter, the idea of an eight hour flight (Madrid to Dubai) or a six hour flight (Milan to Dubai) for a meaningless mid-week game must have felt pretty silly to most of the participants.
The sponsorship issue was the trump card, of course, as the Emirates are helping to fund both participating teams in their European homes. Further proof of the true meaning of the game came via the television coverage which featured the host city’s name superimposed on the screen, unavoidable, flashing field-level advertisements with the same theme, and a minutes long cut-away from the action to ensure we did not miss the arrival of the host government’s official representatives as they shook hands with Real’s president Florentino Perez. The action we missed while watching the handshake, a shot on goal, a corner, and a couple of fruitless forays on both sides of the pitch, was “not significant,” the game announcers assured us.
Tennis ace Novak Djokovic, in loafers, slacks and a blazer, officially juggled a ball with the Real team on the pitch before the second half kick-off while later audience members unofficially were allowed to run onto the pitch and hug the startled stars at game’s end.
Pregame coverage included Ancelotti’s comment that “It’s going to be a very special match for me. I have a lot of history with Milan and I also have a great relationship with their new manager who was once one of my players.” While at the conclusion of the match Inzaghi said “I am satisfied. It was, however, a friendly and we cannot get ahead of ourselves.”
During the match itself, Menez (24’) and El Shaarawy (31’) put AC Milan ahead and Ronaldo (35’) pulled one back for Real Madrid by halftime. In the second half, El Shaarawy (49’) and Pazzini (73’) ensured the game was out of reach by the time Benzema (84’) converted the one penalty of six the referee saw fit to whistle.
Ultimately, the Milan players dutifully raised the match-winner’s trophy while confetti poured down and the mostly pro-Madrid audience did its best to cheer.