Hailed as perhaps soccer’s greatest team ever, FC Barcelona faced a challenge no club had overcome: advancing in the Champions League after a 2-0 first-leg loss on the road. Barcelona came through in spectacular fashion with another record-setting night.
Many voices have been doubting Barça in recent weeks, but the critics were soon silenced by the blistering way that the Catalans started tonight, immediately throwing everything at a Milan side that wasn’t given a moment to think. The visitors had barely touched the ball or built up any kind of momentum when Messi stunned Abbiati with a brilliantly placed strike that took so much wind out of Milan that they never really recovered.
Iniesta hits the bar
Barça were playing with Villa at centre forward and Pedro and Alves opening up the field for Messi and Iniesta to conduct the orchestra from the centre, a task they delivered to absolute perfection. It was the latter who finished off the second major opportunity of the night, a strike that Abbiati somehow managed to nudge onto the bar, and Messi was unfortunate not to convert the rebound. It looked like the Milan keeper was in for a busy night.
Niang hits post, Messi scores
FC Barcelona continued to go out and out in search of a second goal, but there was always the danger that the Serie A side would manage to make something out of the space that was being left behind them. And that is precisely what happened following a Barça corner, when a rapid counter attack ended with Niang face to face with Valdés. The Camp Nou fell silent as the ball looked to be headed goalward, but instead it hit the post, and just seconds later concern became jubilation as Messi made it 2-0 with an absolute peach of a goal from the edge of the area, an almost exact replica of the one he put past Van der Sar at Wembley in 2011. A non-stop first half had ended with the game back to all-square on aggregate. It was now a question of ten minutes rest and then going out to finish the job.
Villa tips the balance
AC Milan were forced to change their tactics in the second half. It would no longer do just to sit back and defend, and the increased pressure in midfield made it harder for Barça to develop their natural passing game. The smallest of errors from Busquets, Mascherano or Piqué could prove fatal, because a Milan goal would leave Barça needing two more. So FC Barcelona were more cautious in their efforts to find a third goal, but when Mascherano brilliantly recovered the ball deep in the Milan half and laid it off to Xavi, who in turn found Villa, and the Asturian struck home, Barça could finally start enjoying themselves.
Alba seals the deal
But not too much. There was no doubt which was the better side, but it wasn’t quite all over yet. In only 55 minutes, Barça may have not just cancelled out Milan’s two goals from the first leg, but also added another of their own, but there was still the nagging fear that the ‘rossoneri’ could snatch one back. And a solitary Milan goal would still be enough to send them through by virtue of the away goals rule. Robinho and former Barça man Bojan were sent on to add some much needed verve to the Italian attack, but time was running out, and they weren’t helping matters with some shockingly sloppy errors. With the game well into injury time, Milan made an absolute mess of a potentially devastating free kick opportunity, and were caught napping on the counter attack, with Jordi Alba slipping home the goal that made it 4-0 and confirmed that FC Barcelona will be one of this season’s Champions League quarter finalists.
“Milan only needed a goal, but we knew how to handle the game very well,” Alba said. “This is a very important win for us. A lot was at stake.”
AC Milan, a seven-time champion, won the first leg at San Siro on Feb. 20 and nearly got a valuable away goal in the 38th minute, but 18-year-old forward M’baye Niang hit a post with an open shot after a sloppy headed backpass by Mascherano. If Niang had tied the game 1-1, Barcelona would have needed at least three more goals at that point to advance because away goals are a tiebreaker.
“Barcelona is still the best team in the world. Moving on was a true feat,” Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “The first leg didn’t change these two teams, and whoever thought so was wrong. We played worse than in the first leg, but that is to Barcelona’s credit.”
Messi, the four-time FIFA Player of the Year, got his 18th multi-goal game of the season and increased his season goals total to 53. Led by the 25-year-old Messi, Barcelona is seeking its fourth Champions League title in eight years and is closing in on its sixth Spanish league championship in nine seasons. Barcelona is 16-0-4 at home in the Champions League since a loss to Ruben Kazan in October 2009.
There has been much said in recent weeks about Barça’s magnificent era approaching its end. Tonight, however, they were back to their old selves, and will be the team everybody will be hoping to avoid in Friday’s draw. Due to recent events, Barcelona's era is not approaching its end. They are truly the comeback kings.