FOX Soccer Exclusive
Barca, Messi resume normal service
The dynasty lives.
Many – myself included – had predicted that FC Barcelona’s long run as the world’s best club team would come to an end when they faced AC Milan trailing 2-0 on aggregate before their second leg UEFA Champions League round of 16 match on Tuesday. But they were wrong.
Wrong to think Barcelona had no hope of becoming the first team to ever overcome a two-goal deficit while playing their second leg at home. Wrong to think Barca’s slump – which saw them lose to Milan, lose to Real Madrid twice and struggle to beat weak La Liga opponents – foretold the end of their dominance. Wrong to think acting head coach Jordi Roura had let things fall apart while Tito Vilanova underwent chemotherapy. Wrong to think Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta would let such a thing happen.
Such was the trashing Barca handed Milan in their 4-0 victory – which made the aggregate score an unambiguous 4-2 and sends the Catalans through to the quarterfinals – that any such talk seemed foolhardy in retrospect. Like we all should have known better.
Yet another vintage Messi display got off to a rousing start when a nice combination got him the ball atop the box in the 5th minute, from where he struck the ball with the swiftness of a cobra, lashing it into the top corner of the stunned Christian Abbiati’s goal.
Six minutes later, Pedro should probably have been awarded a penalty and the chance to equalize the tie when Ignazio Abate bundled him over. But no whistle sounded and Milan’s execution would have to wait a while longer.
It loomed again in the 13th minute, when Abbiati pushed a laser shot by Iniesta off the bar and Messi nodded the follow-up header just wide. But Milan managed to weather that storm, as they did so many times in the space of just 94 minutes. They even got dangerous on occasion, when Stephan El Shaarawy would dive into the acres of space mostly ineffective right back Dani Alves would vacate when he pushed up. From there, El Shaarawy gave Barca’s defense fits with his speed but the personnel surrounding him was programmed to defend, not serve him with the sustenance to keep up his one-man assault. The balls intended for him were all too often misdelivered, and so Milan’s only chance of competing in this game went up in smoke. For their part, that was a shame, because Barca’s shoddy backline was ripe for exploitation.
Instead, Barca commanded the run of play, gobbling up two-thirds of possession throughout the game. Milan was happy to sit in and hope that the clock would run out on their opponents. But as Barca’s foes have known for many years now, you can only get away with that for so long. When the Blaugranas are on form, as they inarguably were on Tuesday, all the tiny passes eventually find a way to cut through the clutter, like water slowly seeping through a basket.
In the 39th minute, Messi found just such a slit between the strands of wicker to force a droplet through. He collected the ball at the edge of the area, juked, took a slight touch to his left and slashed his slot against the grain, through two defenders and out of Abbiati’s reach to even up the affair 2-2 on aggregate. Astonishingly, that was his 70th goal in his last 47 home games.
As if to emphasize the point that even the steepest of challenges remain somehow easy for Barca, they scored the equalizer less than a minute after M’Baye Niang had dinked a shot off their post, when Javier Mascherano had badly misplayed a high ball and given the French Milan striker a clear run at their goal.
From then on, Barcelona’s victory felt inevitable, just as the dusk of its glory years seemed to at the start of the night. All of their finicky passes found a purpose in the 57th minute, when Xavi, after yet more excellent preparatory work from Iniesta, fed striker David Villa, awaiting it wide open in the box. The old poacher knew just what to do with such a gilt-edged opportunity, taking a touch and coolly curling it into the net for the winner.
Sure, Milan tried its best thereafter, playing even more physically and bringing on more attacking manpower. But its fate had been sealed. A few half-chances here and there never threatened to upset what had been the natural order all along. They surged but their waves of attacks always receded, without breaching the beachhead. And they were leaving themselves open to counter-attacks.
That’s how Jordi Alba made it 4-0 in the 92nd minute. Alves, precise in his execution for once, found him with a cross-field ball which left Alba with the simple chore of slipping it past the stranded Abbiati.
A little later, after the final whistle had pierced the jubilant air and breathed new life into Barca, Alba fell to his knees, pumped both his fists and laid out onto the turf, exhausted. There had been tension in the Barca camp, according to reports. There had been even more pressure, incumbent upon what most think of as the greatest club team of all time to extend their reign.
Now there was relief. And all was right in the soccer world again.
Despite taking an early lead through Roman Neustadter, the German side were ultimately undone by a wonder-strike from Hamit Altintop and a second goal from Burak Yilmaz just before the break.
Although Michel Bastos leveled just after the hour, Schalke still needed another as Galatasaray had scored more away goals and their all-out attack left them vulnerable at the back, with the Turkish outfit making sure of their progress thanks to Umut Bulut's injury-time effort.
FOX Soccer’s wire services contributed to this report.