In the roster of heroic deeds performed by FC Barcelona, a dramatic European comeback was missing, an unequivocal sign of the club’s defiant spirit in the face of adversity. It was especially important that this spirit of rebellion was evoked after the drab performance in Milan last month, which saw Barça lose the first leg 2-0 to set up the formidable challenge of needing to win by three goals at Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
As well as keeping the team in the Champions League competition and boosting morale after two recent defeats at the hands of Real Madrid, the Leo Messi-inspired 4-0 victory over AC Milan also served to help erase the unpleasant memory of the same scoreline inflicted on Barcelona by the Italian side in the 1994 final in Athens.
Barça’s number 10 quite simply destroyed one of the best defensive systems in soccer
The best victories tend to follow the most painful defeats, especially when we are talking about great teams, the ones which mark an era. Messi’s Barcelona reigned supreme on the night when the biggest question mark hung over the team’s ascendancy. The team that dared to slight Barça on its own turf was punished cruelly. Barcelona is still a much better team than Milan, particularly with its trusty midfield quartet of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Pedro lining up behind Messi.
Barça’s number 10 quite simply destroyed one of the best defensive systems in soccer; Italian catenaccio wilted under the Argentinean’s assault. With over 94,000 noisy fans packed into Camp Nou, Barcelona bore down on the visiting team from the kick off, the selection of David Villa as center forward a clear declaration of a desire to play the ball faster than in recent, more disappointing days. The forwards also had the almost constant support of Dani Alves, the right back holding his advanced position to the point of making the Barcelona a 3-4-3, the Cruyffist formation par excellence.
After 15 minutes the home team had already chalked up its opening goal -- thanks to Messi’s lightning-fast turn and strike from the edge of the box -- a chance for Pedro which may have been a penalty, and two excellent saves by goalkeeper Christian Abbiati from Iniesta and Xavi. When Milan got hold of the ball, Barça pressured with an intensity that the team had lacked of late, repeatedly regaining possession near the Italians’ penalty area. Even so, Milan had one precious opportunity to level the score on the night, when M’Baye Niang found himself alone before Barça keeper Víctor Valdés after Javier Mascherano had misjudged a long clearance. What followed in the next 60 seconds or so confirmed that it was Barcelona’s night: Niang’s shot struck Valdés’ right post, the referee waved away Milan appeals for a penalty after the ball struck Gerard Piqué somewhere near his arm, and, at the other end of the field, Messi doubled Barcelona’s lead with a fierce left-foot shot.
Barcelona was now freed from the weight of the first-leg deficit. With the entire second half ahead, there was plenty of time to seek a winning third goal and a rather disappointing Milan did not have another chance as clear cut as that of Niang. The home fans did not have to wait long after the break to celebrate the strike that provisionally edged Barça into the quarterfinals, as Villa showed his old goal-scoring instincts from a typically laser-guided Xavi assist. Milan had to react: Sulley Muntari, Robinho and, later, former Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkic, were thrown on as substitutes, and a couple of hairy moments ensued in Valdes´ area. But there was little more than that: to wrap up a glorious night for the four-time European champion, left back Jordi Alba sprinted the length of the pitch to finish a counterattack for number four.
“It was more to Barcelona’s credit than our discredit,” said Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri, who pointed out that the return of Villa to the starting 11 had allowed Messi to “play between the lines.”
Jordi Roura, Barcelona’s stand-in coach while Tito Vilanova undergoes treatment for cancer in New York, said: “We have had some tough, difficult days of late. The players have been excessively criticized, but they earned a good result today and showed they are made of something special.”
Barcelona’s name now goes into the bag for Friday’s quarterfinal draw, as does that of Real Madrid.