FOX Soccer Exclusive
Messi finds mojo as Barca advances
Lionel Messi answered the doubters with a double strike -- including a second goal which featured a characteristic burst of pace and confident delicate finish -- in Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over AC Milan at the Camp Nou qualifying the Spanish giants to the knockout stage of the Champions League on Wednesday night.
The result further concerns about the future of Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri. With Group H’s other game finishing Ajax 1-0 Celtic, Milan are now in a three way battle to qualify which Allegri surely needs to win to keep his job.
This was these sides’ eighth meeting in just over two years -- and Messi had scored six times across the first seven of those games. But still many of those taking their seats pregame were wondering how he might react to widespread media coverage this week of his goal drought in La Liga -- where he has not notched in over 300 minutes.
One might think that players like a four time Ballon d’Or winner would not care about outside things like media pressure or political rows -- but as we saw with last week’s Cristiano Ronaldo-versus-Sepp Blatter palaver, they do. And Messi started here as if eager to prove a point.
It was not quite clicking for him though -- with the massed ranks of the visiting defense snuffing out a few typical runs in the opening stages. Then the game, or perhaps referee Milorad Mazic, offered Messi a chance to end his drought with a penalty awarded for a tug by Abate on Neymar. Milan protested to no avail and Messi thumped his spot kick down the center -- a change from his usual penalty taking routine -- as the Argentine took the opportunity to release some frustration.
Milan were soon left angry again as Sergio Busquets was soon left free close-in to head a second goal, though this time they should have directed their ire at their own faulty offside trap, not the ref. The game looked over as the visitors were showing much less zip or belief than in last month’s 1-1 at San Siro, but then out of nothing it was 2-1. Kaka reeled in the years to outpace Dani Alves on the outside and slam a ball across goal which was deflected into his own net by Gerard Pique.
Perhaps boosted by that break Milan had plenty of the ball at the start of the second half. Or it could have been that Barca wanted the visitors to attack so they could pick them off on the counter. That would have worked but Iniesta kept on delaying a pass too long and the linesman kept flagging Neymar offside. Yet the Brazilian looked Barca’s most likely source of a third -- and was unfortunate when he dribbled past four players but then skied his shot just as a wonder goal seemed certain.
Messi was still looking slightly off-key. Twice he appeared to have been sprung behind Milan’s defense but both times he was not quite sharp enough and first Urby Emanuelson and then Nigel de Jong scrambled back to clear. Camp Nou fans were just wondering whether that was a sign their hero was still worried about his delicate hamstrings when he burst onto a Cesc Fabregas return pass, leaving his markers for dead, and calmly lifted the finish over Christian Abbiati to net for 3-1.
That left the feeling that Messi was fine, and those who had been hyping the drought looking a bit silly. The same goes for Catalan pundits annoyed with coach Gerardo Martino's tactical tweaking. Barca are maybe not playing as fluently as at their peak under Josep Guardiola three years ago, but they keep getting results. Gerardo Martino's team are now 18 games unbeaten in all competitions, Spanish Super Cup champions, clear on top of La Liga, and through their Champions League group at a canter.
Martino deserves a break, but the debate around Allegri will continue. There was plenty of talk of a coaching change in the press box pregame, with Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf the names being mentioned. But then again, FOX Soccer was at Malaga 1-0 Milan almost exactly 12 months ago and heard similar speculation -- including the exact same likely successors -- and Allegri held on then.
Mario Balotelli’s arrival last January perked up Milan’s season, sparking an excellent run of form which returned them to the Champions League and kept Allegri in his job. Not fully fit, he replaced a quiet Robinho at halftime here and was a huge improvement. He also looked eager to make a point, testing Victor Valdes with a powerful shot from a tight angle and then racing past both Adriano Correia and Javier Mascherano down the right to drive in a cross which Kaka almost converted.
That was Milan's last chance to equalize, as Messi soon ended all the debates.
In the other game in Group H, Ajax, with just the lone point to show for its first three contests -- having been robbed of the win in the home game with Milan and settling for a tie instead -- needed a win to stay in contention for a knockout round spot. And it knew it would have to find a way to cope with Celtic’s nihilistic physicality in order to do so.
As expected, the Scots deployed a hack-a-Ajax approach, leveraging its size and strength to boss around a very young Ajax’s technical but frail players. The Amsterdammers nevertheless gobbled up about two-thirds of possession and the bulk of chances. But goals were elusive.
It wasn’t until the 51st minute that a lovely Lasse Schone run, in which he exchanged passes with one teammate after another as he crossed the field diagonally, culminated in his thoughtful poke past the ever excellent Fraser Forster for the game’s only goal. By then, however, chasing the ball had caught up to a sluggish Celtic, and they hardly mustered much by way of a response.
Consequently, with the game ending 1-0 and Milan losing to Barca 3-1, Milan (5), Ajax (4) and Celtic (3) are just two points apart – and well behind Barca’s 10 – with two games remaining and everything left to play for the Amsterdam club.
FOXSoccer.com's Leander Schaerlaeckens contributed to this report.
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