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Barcelona, Messi need giant miracle
Barcelona's players had no excuses and little hope after last Tuesday’s 4-0 Champions League hammering at Bayern Munich. The odds look staggering before the second leg return match at the Camp Nou (live, FX, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET).
Barca defender Gerard Pique admitted to Catalan TV3 after the game that Bayern had been better technically and physically than the Spanish side. "They gave us a whipping, it is as simple as that," Pique said.
Midfielder Xavi Hernandez told reporters his side faced a massive task in Wednesday's second leg at the Camp Nou. Xavi added: “There are 90 minutes left but we need a miracle.”
The Catalan media agreed the result was a disaster for Tito Vilanova’s men. Newspaper Mundo Deportivo screamed ‘Nightmare’ from its cover on Wednesday morning, while Sport bemoaned ‘The Saddest Night’ for the blaugrana. The feeling in Catalonia was the tie was already finished.
Minds started to turn to planning for next season, especially when club vice president Josep Maria Bartomeu told Catalunya Radio on Thursday that a "shake-up" of the squad would occur in the summer. It was almost like this term was over.
By Friday, Vilanova, criticized for being slow to introduce substitutes at the Allianz Arena, decided he had to remind everyone there was still a game to play. He took his first press conference since January, having since been in New York receiving cancer treatment, and claimed neither he nor his players had given up yet.
"We are Barcelona and playing at home," Vilanova said. "I cannot say we will come back easily, but we have an obligation to our fans to compete. We are capable of beating them. It is very difficult, of course, but we are not throwing in the towel. Setting out to score four goals is difficult, but we will go out to play well and try to be in a position to compete during the game."
The Catalan coach then named a strong side for Saturday night’s La Liga game at Athletic Bilbao, but left Lionel Messi on the bench to nurse the thigh injury which had hampered him in Munich. And a listless Barca was 1-0 behind at halftime.
Entering as a 59th minute substitute, Messi changed the game completely. Within 30 seconds he had sprinted past his marker and shot at goal, something unseen during 90 minutes in Munich. Seven minutes later he bamboozled four Athletic defenders while scoring one of the goals of the season. And two minutes after that he set up Alexis Sanchez’s lead goal for Barca.
"We know what it means to have Messi on the pitch, it doesn't surprise us, when he comes in, he changes the game," Sanchez said afterwards. "He is the best player in the world, and his appearance was tremendous. We are going to fight until the end against Bayern."
This mood-shift was mirrored in the Catalan media. “With Leo, everything is possible,” said Mundo Deportivo’s cover on Monday morning, with the paper's website later reporting excitedly that 'La Pulga' had come in for extra recovery work that afternoon – even though Vilanova had given the squad a day off to rest.
Suddenly blaugrana fans were recalling mid-March's last-16 second leg against AC Milan. Barca went into that game two goals behind from the first leg, but that was no problem to the Argentine. He bulged the net with a hammer-blow 20-yarder inside five minutes, and then scored a similarly powerful second before halftime.
The game finished 4-0, a scoreline which would send Wednesday’s second leg against Bayern into extra time. However, that would mean Barca keeping a clean sheet, which it has only managed in three of eleven European games this season. If the Germans score one, Barca need six.
And the defensive issues which contributed to the mauling in Munich surfaced again in Bilbao. Both Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were at fault for Athletic’s opening goal, while the Basque side’s late equalizer was easily avoidable.
Injuries and suspensions hurt Vilanova’s chances of fixing such leaks for Wednesday. Alba is banned after petulantly throwing the ball into the face of Bayern’s Arjen Robben late last week, while midfield shield Sergio Busquets is struggling with a groin problem.
Adriano Correia should deputize at leftback, and Javier Mascherano may make a surprise return just four weeks after tearing knee ligaments. But given Bayern has first choice center forward Mario Mandzukic back to join first leg scorers Robben and Thomas Muller, it is hard to see Barca’s backline holding out – especially if former Arsenal midfielder Alex Song has to fill in for Busquets.
The club say Camp Nou will be wrapped pre-game with a 'mosaic' spelling out ‘Barca, Pride, Barca.’ And it does look as if pride, more than a real chance of making the final, is at stake for Vilanova’s team on Wednesday. Unless, that is, Messi answers that call for a miracle.
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