If, as predicted by Jose Mourinho, the world stopped to watch Manchester United v Real Madrid on Tuesday, then the world surely stopped again on Wednesday to watch FC Barcelona play the return game against AC Milan at the Camp Nou. Beaten 2-0 at the San Siro, the Catalans at the Camp Nou had to play better than they had in their previous four matches, in which they managed a win against Depor and three losses, twice against Real Madrid, and once against AC Milan.
As much as Milan deserved their victory at the San Siro, Barcelona played right into the Italian’s game plan by passing the ball laterally far too many times, and by taking too many touches on the ball far too frequently. Those extra seconds Barcelona took on the ball allowed the Milan defense to shift to meet a threat, and to regain its defensive shape. In the end, Barcelona controlled possession of the ball but created few scoring opportunities in a display of utter futility. When Xavi and Iniesta attempted passes forward, they ran into a solid and disciplined Milan defense. Throughout the game at the San Siro, Barcelona looked predictable, unimaginative, and tired, both physically and mentally. In 90 minutes Barcelona managed only two shots on goal, one in each half.
Naturally, the adverse result gave the press impunity to question whether this great team was in decline. Messi, quiet in the first game, came under meticulous scrutiny. What was wrong with Messi? Was there discord in the team? Were Xavi and Iniesta carrying injuries? The press even questioned how much Tito Vilanova’s absence from the dugout is affecting the team? Tito is in NYC receiving treatment for cancer of the parotid gland in his throat. To Barcelona’s credit, Rosell, the club president, visited Vilanova in NYC, and when he returned Rosell made statements to the press in full support of Vilanova. “Tito’s health is the most important thing; everything else is secondary.” And: “Tito is our coach, nobody else. We are not going to move anyone, even if it means winning nothing. For us, a good season is Tito making a full recovery.” This as reported by the Guardian.
It was in this context that the faithful gathered all around the world to watch the return game at the Camp Nou. The inclusion of Villa in the starting line-up confirmed that Barcelona meant to be more aggressive and, fans hoped, much more direct in their approach to Abbiati’s goal, than they had been at the San Siro. As expected, once the game began Barcelona controlled possession from the kick-off. They were aggressive, and their tiki-taka and rotation had the Italians chasing shadows. The game was only 5 minutes old when the Catalans struck. The ball passed, one-touch, from Busquets to Xavi, and from Xavi to Messi. Messi controlled the ball on the run, with his left foot, while surrounded by 5 Milan players in an arrangement that looked like a flower in bloom. And from the center of the flower, with his left foot Messi bent the ball around defenders and goalkeeper. It was a statement strike. The ball rocketed into the upper right hand corner of the goal, with Abbiati a spectator. The score now stood at 1:2. It was a dream start that filled the faithful with hope. Al Shaarawy might have scored for Milan but he missed the target on the 8th minute, and on the 33rd, his touch was a tad too heavy. The turning point came on the 38th minute when Milan counter-attacked and caught Barcelona scrambling at the back. With the goal and Valdez at his mercy, Niang fired and hit the post. On the next play, Messi scored again, a goal similar to his first. It was then when the faithful sensed this was possibly going to be Barca’s night. The score now stood at 2:2.
By now everyone saw this team was playing like the Barcelona of old. Milan had difficulty coping with the intensity and the full-court press to get the ball back anytime Barca lost it. The Catalan’s efforts paid dividends again when Villa scored on the 55th minute, putting Barcelona ahead for the first time in the aggregate score. Villa took a pass from Xavi in the right side of the penalty area, controlled the ball and then he bent it around Abiatti. It was the least Villa deserved on a night in which his presence and movement kept Milan’s fullbacks busy and prevented them from double-teaming Messi.
In the 60th minute Milan brought in Robinho and Muntari for Ambrossini and Boateng. For the next 20 minutes Milan enjoyed a spell of possession and pressure that had Barca defending desperately. In the 74th minute, Milan sent in Bojan to increase the pressure, while Barca replaced Villa with Sanchez. The final changes happened in the 77th minute when Puyol replaced Mascherano, and in the 83rd when Adriano came in for Pedro. Near the end of the match, Alba threw himself at Robinho’s feet to block a point blank shot on goal from the Brazilian forward. And then on the 90th minute, Barca managed to clear a ball to Messi who skipped a couple of tackles before releasing a pass to Sanchez, seen racing forward on the right channel, with Milan’s defense in pursuit. Sanchez then sent a perfect pass just beyond the reach of the retreating Milan defenders which Alba controlled. Running at full speed toward the Italian goal, Alba shot the ball around the advancing Abiatti, thus securing Barca’s victory.
The 4-0 final score, and the 4-2 aggregate victory over Milan qualified the Catalans for the next round. It was an historic victory on a night in which Barcelona overcame not only an adverse score, but also concerns over the health of Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova, and they did it by going back to their brand of football. Next up: Paris Saint-Germain.