Two penalties from Leo Messi and a goal from Andres Iniesta earned Barça a 3-1 win over AC Milan at Camp Nou tonight to claim a place in the Champions League semi finals for a record fifth successive season. Messi’s goals were also record breaking as the first took him past his previous Champions League record – tied with Ruud Van Nistlerooy – of twelve goals in a season, and the second, his fourteenth in this season’s competition equals the fourteen goals in the European Cup scored by Milan’s José Altafini in the 1962/63 season. In all competitions Messi has now scored 58 goals this season.
There was plenty of speculation about team selection before the game but few expected to see Isaac Cuenca in the starting XI with Alexis Sanchez on the bench. The need for width was obvious and Cuenca started on the left with the other surprise being Alves playing high up on the right wing with a back three of Mascherano, Piqué and Puyol. Busquets played just in front of the defence with Xavi close by, we then had Iniesta, Fabregas and Messi to interchange between midfield and attack doing their best to pull Milan out of position.
Barça began at a tremendous pace, harrying Milan in every zone of the pitch and the chances arrived quickly. Iniesta played a one-two on the edge of the area with Messi but the ball came back quickly and Iniesta mishit his shot wide. Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to Camp Nou for the first time since leaving in 2010 and was keen to impress, in the fourth minute he galloped into the area for Milan’s first chance but then he swung at air, missing the ball as Piqué slid in.
Messi reacted with an electrifying run in the fifth minute but his shot went straight at Abbiati. Then two minutes later Alves crossed from the right, Fabregas laid of a sweet first time pass into Messi who controlled on his chest and with just the keeper to beat screwed his right foot shot wide of the far post.
The pressing from Barça continued to be intense and it bore fruits in the tenth minute: Messi robbed Ambrosini near the half way line and sped away with nobody capable of staying with him, for once Messi didn’t shoot cutting the ball back towards Xavi who seemed to have lost the occasion but Antonini only succeeded in giving the ball back to Messi who he then brought down. The Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Messi kept his cool and slotted the ball inside the post, Abbiati guessed right and got a touch to the ball but he couldn’t prevent the goal.
The goal was deserved but it was followed by a spell where our intensity dropped a bit. Mascherano made one excellent tackle to rob Ibrahimovic as Milan looked to counter and for a while we did not look too comfortable. Puyol almost got on the end of a training-ground corner kick, Messi had another right-foot effort which went straight at Abbiati but Milan always looked capable of creating danger very quickly.
In the 32nd minute Robinho turned away from Mascherano and played the ball forward to Ibrahimovic and as our defence moved towards him he threaded the ball through to Nocerino free on the right who fired past Valdés for the equalizer. Pep Guardiola had stated before the game that he was sure Milan would score a goal, Barça took the blow and continued with the task of looking for more goals but Milan were encouraged. Abbiati had to make a good one-handed save from Xavi’s 25-yard drive and for a while we were looking frustrated.
Ibrahimovic robbed Piqué inside the penalty area and Mascherano had to make a saving tackle but the danger was obvious, fortunately Barça were then gifted a second penalty. Xavi had a shot deflected for a corner and before the ball came in Nesta took hold of a fistful of Sergio Busquets’ shirt, Nesta failed to let go when Busquets made his run and Kuipers blew for the penalty. Abbiati dived the same way as for the first penalty but this timev Messi put the ball in the opposite corner.
Guardiola immediately signalled for Alves to move back and for the remainder of the match we played a more traditional 4-3-3 as Iniesta was moved to the left wing and Cuenca switched to the right. iniesta immediately made a chance but his cross was too fast for Messi and despite the ball rebounding goalwards Abbiati was able to make a diving save.
A one-goal lead against Milan is never going to be safe and Barça got the necessary breathing space early in the second half. Again it was Messi who caused the problems for Milan with his run at the heart of the Milan defence, his final shot was blocked but the ball bounced kindly into the path of Iniesta who controlled with his left foot before sweeping right-footed past Abbiati into the far corner.
The two-goal cushion allowed Camp Nou to relax a bit and enjoy the occasion though there were a couple of moments of poor concentration. First, we got involved with arguing over Boateng’s gesturing at Mascherano and when the corner came in we forgot to mark Boateng and were fortunate to see him head wide, and then Piqué clearance was charged down by Robinho but the referee gave a handball against Robinho after Valdés had made a good save rushing out.
There was little danger from Milan in the last half hour, Barça might have added to the lead, first after a magnificent ball from Cesc found Messi who laid off a great first time pass into the path of Thiago who should have scored but put the ball wide of the far post. We ended the game playing deep but with few problems to deal with Milan’s long balls forward. Piqué was forced to come off injured, then as Milan advanced we nearly caught them out when Mascherano played Adriano through but the substitute pulled his shot wide of the near post.
While being a highly entertaining game the sensation was always there that Milan could sneak another goal to cause us a nervy finish. However, the overall balance of the game was clearly in Barça’s favour and the victory deserved. Messi continues to break records seemingly week after week, but it is not just the number of goals he scores, it is the beauty of watching him in full flight, and tonight he was again the one who really made the difference. The choice of Cuenca gave us more width though it might be said that we didn’t use him very much. it didn’t matter as it at least stretched the Milan defence which made more space for the runs of Messi, Fabregas and Iniesta. A final mention should go to two Milan players. A new look Maxi Lopez returned to Camp Nou and came on for the last ten minutes, we might remember the goal he scored against Mourinho’s Chelsea seven years and his famous chicken dance celebration. And Clarence Seedorf earned deserved applause when substituted. It is nice that despite his spell at Real Madrid the fans are able to recognise one of the game’s legends.
Barça: Valdés 7; Mascherano 8, Piqué 7.5 (Adriano m75, 6.5), Puyol 7; Busquets 8, Xavi 7.5 (Thiago m63, 6), Iniesta 7; Alves 7, Messi 8.5, Fabregas 7.5 (Keita m78, 6.5), Cuenca 7.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Nesta, Antonini; Nocerino, Ambrosini, Seedorf (Aquilani m60); Boateng (Pato m69 – (m83 Maxi Lopez) ); Robinho, Ibrahimovic.
Goals: m11 Messi (pen) 1-0, m32 Nocerino 1-1, m41 Messi 2-1, m53 Iniesta 3-1.
Yellow cards: m10 Antonini, m40 Nesta, m66 Mascherano, m77 Robinho, m86 Cuenca, m91 Mexes, m93 Nocerino.