Barcelona smashes Milan
Apologies, apologies and a thousand more apologies. In the conclusion of the last match report after the fiasco in Milan, I lamented the end of Barcelona’s football empire. I have never been so thrilled to be wrong.
There were more than ninety eight thousand pairs of fingers crossed in the Camp Nou tonight as Barça took to the field. Turning around a two nil deficit had never been done in the history of the Champions League knock out stages and Jordi Roura was praying his troops would break tradition. Instead they smashed it.
Barcelona have not been their usual luminous selves in recent weeks. Ravaged by bad luck, poor form, and the devastating loss of their manager has proved to be no small burden to bear. At the start of the New Year they were still been heralded as the greatest team to ever grace the planet – but their form of late has suggested the beginning of the end.
Changes were made to the line up in the shape of Javier Mascherano in the stead of captain Carles Puyol. He was partnered in the centre by Pique and flanked by Jordi Alba and Dani Alves. Xavi returned to the fore after a thigh injury to complete the midfield trio with Busquets and Iniesta. David Villa was granted a rare start at the front with Pedro and the inimitable Lionel Messi. If someone was going to dig the team out of the giant hole they had dug in Italy – it would surely be the little magician.
It didn’t take him long to get on the score sheet. The home side hit the ground running and displayed the kind of intensity and desire that has been lacking in the past few games. A series of slick passes at the edge of the crowded area between Busquets, Iniesta and Messi led to the latter receiving the ball surrounded by a forest of giant defenders, however he managed to create an inch of space and rocket a curling left footed drive into the top corner of the net. Pique told the fans to stay at home if they didn’t believe a comeback was possible. Belief spread like wildfire.
Barcelona had numerous chances to double their lead as the game progressed at a break neck speed. Pedro was pulled down for a stone wall penalty by Abate as the Canarian ran onto a Xavi chipped pass. Iniesta blasted a volleyed effort off the crossbar and Messi couldn’t finish the rebound and headed wide of the empty net from a tight angle. Abbiati was busy in the Milan goal and did well to stop a long range effort from Xavi. Barcelona were rampant. Their speed, movement and intensity was remnant of their best performances under Guardiola.
The visitors were very unlucky not to score against the run of play. Niang was set free after Mascherano misread a long hopeful ball to set the teenager through on goal in an acre of space. He bore down on goal but his right footed shot struck the upright. Sixty seconds later there was to be drama at the other end. Iniesta won back possession in the Italian’s half before finding Messi on the edge of the area. The little maestro took a touch before unleashing a left foot drive into the bottom of the net just before the half time break.
Barcelona knew that one goal from Milan would mean they would require four to progress so they were reluctant to sit on their lead. Messi launched on another attacking run shortly after the restart and his shot was well saved by Abbiati. An expert interception by Mascherano, who latched onto a Milan clearance, was fed to Iniesta who found Xavi. Xavi threaded the ball to Davis Villa who left his marker Constant for dead. His first touch was perfect. His finish was sublime. He curled a left footed pass beyond the keeper and into the goal. His celebration suggested he was enjoying his time off the bench.
At three nil Barcelona were still vulnerable. Puyol replaced Mascherano and Alexis Sanchez came on for Villa. With a goal vital for the visitors Milan threw everything forward. Substitute and former Camp Nou favourite Bojan Kirkic ran to the byline before setting up Robinho with a tap in. A heroic challenge by Jordi Alba snuffed out the shot and kept their dreams alive. The little left back was not finished there however. Messi wrestled possession back in the middle of the park, before setting Sanchez free on the counter. He struck a first time cross into the path of Alba who slotted the ball home to put the game and the tie beyond Milan. The Camp Nou rejoiced. And the Catalan capital will continue to rejoice long into the night. Welcome back. We’ve missed you.
Image Credit: MANEL MONTILLA – MD