Barcelona produced a scintillating display that will live long in the memory as they turned their 2-0 first-leg deficit to Milan on its head to move into the Champions League quarterfinals with a stunning 4-0 win at Camp Nou on Tuesday.
Lionel Messi got the ball rolling inside five minutes with a glorious goal and by half-time the Argentinian magician has made the scores level on aggregate. David Villa then struck early in the second period to put Barcelona in front and, with Milan unable to find the away goal that would still have taken them through, Jordi Alba scored on a break away to make the result safe deep into injury time.
Despite being soundly beaten on the night, Milan will be left lamenting their failure to take advantage of a less than secure Barcelona defense, notably when M’Baye Niang wasted a gaping chance as he hit the post moments before Messi’s second goal.
After one of the worst months in their trophy laden recent history, Barcelona firmly answered the critics that had questioned whether their season was about to peter out following two successive defeats to Real Madrid.
This was a different Barcelona. The Blaugrana began with a pace and purpose that has been so evidently missing in recent weeks and Milan instantly found themselves under pressure. Within no time at all the tie was put firmly in the balance courtesy of a stunning strike by Messi.
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With the ball arriving at him at pace on the edge of the area from Sergio Busquets’ pass, Messi’s remarkably adept feet allowed him to get the ball under his spell and give him half a yard of space in the midst of four defenders. In the blink of an eye and before an unmoved Christian Abbiati knew what happened the forward had deposited the ball into the roof of the net.
The pressure was unrelenting for the first half of the opening period in particular. Helped by Andres Iniesta back in a midfield role, the tempo of Barcelona’s passing as well as the purposefulness in their movement was in complete contrast to what they produced at the San Siro.
Such was Barcelona’s early dominance, as they were roared on by an impassioned home support, that it was a wonder that more goals didn’t immediately follow. Certainly there were chances.
The home side, with plenty of justification, felt that they should have had a penalty when Pedro went down in the box from Ignazio Abate’s challenge from behind but the referee waved play on.
Minutes later Iniesta struck a rising effort from 20 yards that Abbiati dived to parry away and Messi may feel he should have done better than to head the rebound into the side netting. The overworked Milan goalkeeper produced an even better save from Xavi’s low effort that required Abbiati at full stretch to fingertip it past the post.
Not only were Barcelona full of intent on the ball, but their pressing was also incessant, which gave Milan little opportunity to gather any respite.
It wasn’t until the latter stages of the first 45 minutes that Milan were able to capitalize on a counter attacking threat that was always likely to be present.
As in the first leg, Stephan El Shaarawy was the chief outlet for Milan down the left as the young forward looked to exploit Dani Alves’s offensive intentions. Massimo Ambrosini took advantage of this with a good ball late in the half, but El Shaarawy produced a poor finish straight at Victor Valdes.
As half-time approached came a chance that could have been the tie’s defining moment. Barcelona showed the vulnerability at the back that had seen them, before Saturday go 12 matches without keeping a clean sheet, as Javier Mascherano made an almighty hash of a header on the half-way line. That allowed Niang to break completely free into the penalty area, but the 18-year-old missed an opportunity for an all-important away goal as he struck the post.
Just seconds later, Milan were punished in the cruelest and most instantaneous of fashions as Messi made it 2-0. Iniesta stole the ball off of Ambrosini and fed it into Messi 20 yards from goal and the Argentinian came up with something special once more as he moved inside Mexes and struck low past Abbiati.
Despite the one-sided nature of the first half and its scoreline, there was still plenty for Milan to hold onto at the break. But just as they did in the opening period, Barcelona stunned the visitors with an early goal in the second period.
In a classic example of Barcelona’s incisive passing, Iniesta laid it back to Xavi, who, showing his satellite-like awareness of the field, threaded an instant pass inside full-back Kevin Constant to pick out Villa on the right of the area. With his left-foot Spain’s record goal-scorer produced a clinical finish as he placed the ball into the far corner of the net.
The third goal forced Milan’s hand in terms of changes to both attitude and personnel. Almost immediately on came Robinho and Sulley Muntari, while the visitors adopted a higher starting position on the field.
There was certainly encouragement to be had for Milan from what was a far from faultless Barcelona defense. On more than one occasion had Milan’s final pass been better or the ball run their way, that vital away goal may have arrived.
There was plenty of pressure from Milan and plenty of nerves from both Barcelona players and supporters. Yet, the closest that the Rossoneri came to snatching the tie at the death was a low cross to the near post from Bojan Krkic that looked poised to be converted by Robinho, before Jordi Alba produced a fine last-ditch tackle.
With seconds of injury time remaining, Barcelona made the result safe with a thrilling counter attack as Alexis Sanchez swung the ball across to Jordi Alba who showed his coolness in fornt of goal to slide the ball past Abbiati and cap a breathtaking night at one of the game's great cathedralss.