Barcelona: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Milan: Abbiati, Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant, Ambrosini, Montolivo, Flamini, Boateng, Niang, El Shaarawy
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)
This night played out almost like a warning from Barcelona. Losing to Milan 2-0 in the San Siro sparked a network of naysayers who pointed the finger at Barcelona, claiming that their power had diminished and speculating that the Catalan giants would exit the Chmapions League at the first knock-out stage; an unthinkable event in a modern footballing context. Their response was exhilarating, they simply couldn’t have responded to their defeat to Milan with more authority.
Kick-off approaching, there was an air of uncertainty that filled the great stadium of Camp Nou. For the first time in recent memory, the greatest team in world football faced an uphill battle to progress in the Champions League, It was well documented in the build-up to this match that no team had ever overturned a two-goal deficit from the first leg having failed to score an away goal.
Relief swelled the vast numbers in attendance as Messi brilliantly opened the scoring after five minutes. Barcelona wasted no time in firmly establishing authority over possession and let Milan know the game would be played at their pace. Exchanging short passes with Xavi on the edge of the penalty area, Messi controlled the ball deftly to create the angle for a shot and unleashed an unstoppable drive which left Abbiati in the Milan goal rooted to the spot as a hapless spectator to another sprinkling of Messi magic.
If this was the first genuine assessment of Barcelona’s credentials in the Champions League considering the disadvantageous position in which they found themselves, they passed it with flying colours. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta punished a Milan side who cut a shameful shadow of the model of concentration and tactical discipline we witnessed three weeks ago. Captain Massimo Ambrosini and centre-half Philipe Mexes symbolised a vital experienced duo in the middle for Milan, but their hard work was not complemented by Constant, Zapata or Montolivo. As a result, Iniesta and Xavi were afforded the space in between the lines they thrive on to engineer chances for the men up top. Ironically, it was the Ambrosini himself who was caught in possession by Andres Iniesta in a dangerous area, who proceeded to feed an offside Messi, unspotted by the linesman, who fired another fantastic shot past a despairing Abbiati.
Milan may count themselves unlucky regarding Messi’s second goal. However, they never deserved a result from their first-half display. They failed to fully utilise the speedy outlet of Stephane El Shaarawy, the 20-year old maestro who owns the second most outrageous haircut in world football, that title going to fellow hot prospect Neymar. Compounding their misery was the lack of presence exerted from Kevin Prince Boateng, who terrorised the Barcelona defence in the first leg and was rewarded with a goal. He failed to influence this leg and as a result cut a forlorn figure on the right-hand side of Milan’s attack for most of the night.
Messi’s second goal came in a swift riposte from Barcelona’s defensive frailties though. In spite of their inferiority, Milan were nonetheless gifted with a glorious opportunity after 40 minutes to stem the Barcelona tide and turn the tie heavily in their favour. Mascherano dealt with a hopeful long pass with almost comical ineptitude which freed Niang, the 18-year old Milan forward deputising for the injured Giampolo Pazzini, in on goal but could only slip his shot past Valdes and onto the post. A glorious chance squandered by an inexperienced forward and Milan can only lament at the fact their in-form striker Pazzini was injured and Balotelli was ineligible for selection. Pazzini having 7 in his last 10 for the Rossoneri and Balotelli grabbing 5 in 5 since his transfer in January, it is easy to imagine that the chance would have been successfully converted had it fallen to them.
David Villa completed the Catalan revival with typical precision after 55 minutes, having had an extremely quiet game up until that point. He capitalised on a reckless lunge from Constant who failed to get the ball and curled the ball into the far corner, again leaving Abbiati with no chance.
Milan did what they could to salvage the tie but it was futile. It was a case of their creative vacuum as much as Barcelona’s creative brilliance. Milan failed to conjure enough chances to adequately test a shaky Barcelona defence who have only kept one clean sheet in the last eight weeks. Abate, the right-back, tussled brilliantly with Jordi Alba all night in a classic hammer and tongs battle between wide men. Both possessing electric pace and a penchant for attacking flair, Jordi Alba had the last laugh as he sprinted clear on the counter-attack to get on the end of a pass from substitute Alexis Sanchez and poke the ball through Abbiati’s leg to complete a triumphant night for Barcelona and Alba himself.
Barcelona’s stark statement of power over Milan will be felt wholeheartedly by those who remain in the competition. For the umpteenth season in a row, betting against them would appear a haphazard move. Re-establishing dominance was key to their progress tonight and they couldn’t have done so more emphatically.