Oh boy, didn’t that feel good? Barça stormed into the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals tonight with a stupendous 4-0 victory over AC Milan at Camp Nou. Needing to overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg, and with doubters predicting the end of an era, Barça levelled the tie with two first half goals from a superb Leo Messi. David Villa fired in Barça’s third early in the second half and despite some extremely tense moments due to the double value of a possible away goal, Barça defended firmly and an injury time goal from Jordi Alba put the icing on the cake of a glorious night.
Jordi Roura and Tito Vilanova kept everybody guessing about the starting XI and the big surprise, just over an hour before kick off, was that club captain Carles Puyol was not included in the team. There was also no place for either Alexis Sanchez or Cesc Fabregas as Barça lined up with ten of the eleven that started in the Wembley final in 2011,with the only difference being Jordi Alba in place of Eric Abidal. For Milan Max Allegri opted for Abbiati, Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant, Montolivo, Ambrosini, Flamini, Niang, Boateng and El Shaarawy.
From the kick off it was clear that Barça were playing a defence of three, with Dani Alves playing a more forward role on the right wing. Pedro started on the left with Villa as centre forward and Messi playing the attacking point of a midfield diamond. The system required a very high pressing game which we haven’t seen for some time, but tonight the players showed a hunger and fighting spirit which was demonstrated in every fifty-fifty ball.
In the first five minutes the pattern for the game was set with Barça regaining possession at lightning speed whenever Milan got the ball. Then in the fifth minute Barça attacked down the left, Iniesta, Pedro and Busquets combined to send the ball to Messi who played a quick one-two with Xavi before unleashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner from just inside the area.
It was the perfect start and Barça showed no sign of letting up. Milan managed a timid attack in response when El-Shaawary scuffed his shot wide but generally Barça’s intense pressing game meant we were winning every ball that Milan tried to play forward. There was a shout for a penalty when Abate seemed to foul Pedro as he looked for Xavi’s long pass. Then in the 13th minute Iniesta played a one-two with Pedro before cracking in a shot that Abbiati saved with the help of the crossbar and Messi following up could only head the ball into the sidenetting.
Barça were incessant. Even Messi was working hard to chase down defenders, provoking Abate into a back pass which Villa was very close to intercepting. Soon after Abbiati had to stretch to tip Xavi’s 25-yarder past the post. Camp Nou was buzzing but with the score at 1-0 there was still an awful lot to do. Pedro headed wide from Alves’s cross but the chances began to dry up. Milan began to look more comfortable and after Jordi Alba ran into a blind alley Milan attacked quickly down the right but El-Shaawary’s acrobatic attempt at an overhead kick failed to connect with Niang’s cross. El-Shaawary then had a low shot from the left that Valdés covered comfortably while at the other end Alves fired a yard wide with a low shot from outside the area.
There was obviously a need for Barça to take risks but when two of our defensive three, Piqué and Alba, combined on the left wing for Alba to cross it was pushing things a touch too far. Milan cleared the ball quickly, Mascherano failed to cut it out and Niang was suddenly clean through on goal. Camp Nou held its breath as the dreaded away goal seemed inevitable. There was then the most enormous sigh of collective relief as the young striker’s shot bounced out off the far post.
From a possible 1-1 a minute later it was 2-0. Iniesta robbed Ambrosini 45 yards out and then sent a firm pass to Messi on the edge of the area, the control was good and the finish from the four-time Ballon d’Or was typically lethal, firing low, through Mexes’s legs and into the corner past Abbiati’s dive. Nobody could complain at Barça going in 2-0 at half time though the tie was still delicately balanced.
The second half began with a run from Messi past two that ended with Abbiati making a comfortable save. The intention from Barça was clear: to keep Milan pinned back in their half. The Italians managed another timid attempt on goal when Boateng hooked a corner well wide but the next goal always looked more likely to come from home side. It arrived in the 55th minute and again we were rewarded for our intense pressing when Mascherano won the ball back in Milan’s half, quick touches from Iniesta and Xavi sent in Villa on the right and the Asturian curled his shot inside the far post to an eruption of joy from Camp Nou.
The hardest part had been achieved but with 35 minutes remaining there was still plenty of time for Milan to search for the all important away goal. Barça continued with the intense pressing but with a more conservative approach in possession. Little by little Milan edged forward with Robinho and Muntari on for Niang and Ambrosini, but Barça defended firmly. The was one shot that took a pinball effect bouncing off a couple of players but Milan couldn’t pounce on the loose ball and the danger was cleared.
The atmosphere was unbelievably tense going into the last 15 minutes as Bojan was brought on for Flamini and Alexis and Puyol replaced Villa and Mascherano. There was still relatively little real danger on Valdés’s goal but the game was being played more and more in Barça’s half. In the 80th minute Busquets had to make an excellent tackle to prevent one burst into the area. Then a minute later Bojan almost ruined Barça’s night after nipping past Piqué on the left but his low cross towards Robinho was brilliantly anticipated by Alba.
It was almost too much to bear. Roura brought on Barça’s final substitute, Adriano for Pedro, as the team put in a final effort to hold on. The work-rate was exceptional throughout and Milan could find little more in the final minutes. In injury time Messi lead a breakaway, feeding Alexis on the right, and then, as if to typify Barça’s undying attacking philosophy, with Milan still just one goal away from qualification, it was a defender, Jordi Alba, sprinting forward to meet Alexis’s cross and slot the ball home. Madness? Brilliance? You tell me. It was certainly a fabulous way to finish an unforgettable night.
Barça (3-4-3): Valdés 7.5; Piqué 8.5, Mascherano 9 (Puyol m77, 6.5), Jordi Alba 8; Busquets 9, Xavi 9, Iniesta 9.5, Messi 10; Alves 8.5, Villa 8 (Alexis m74, 7.5), Pedro 7.5 (Adriano m83, 7).
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Zapata, Mexes, Constant; Montolivo, Ambrosini (Muntari m60), Flamini (Bojan m75); Boateng, Niang (Robinho m60), El Shaarawy.
Goals: m5 Messi 1-0, m39 Messi 2-0, m55 Villa 3-0, m92 Alba 4-0.
Yellow cards: m22 Boateng, m41 Pedro (misses next CL match), m45+1 Flamini, m54 Mexes,