Barça comfortably reached the last 16 of the 2013/14 Champions League after a 3-1 win over AC Milan at Camp Nou tonight. Leo Messi ended his four-match goal drought, blasting Barça in front from the penalty spot after half an hour and ten minutes later Sergio Busquets headed Barça further in front from Xavi’s free kick. Milan cut the deficit just before half time when Gerard Piqué put through his own goal but Messi added his second of the night after a good combination with Cesc Fabregas ten minutes from the end to wrap things up for Barça.
The debate this week has centred on Barça’s style of play and tonight’s game will have done little to settle the argument. Tata Martino began the season using plenty of rotations but in recent games we have seen him leaning towards an once de gala. With Adriano and Piqué declared fit, Martino again put out his best eleven, except for the injured Jordi Alba, which meant both Pedro Rodriguez and Csec Fabregas again started on the bench. Barça gave a dominant performance and deserved the victory but there was still a lack of spark in the final third of the field.
Milan set out in a defensive 4-4-2. Balotelli was sacrificed to the bench which meant that Robinho and Kaká led the attack for the visitors while Andrea Poli was brought in to bolster the midfield. The Italians didn’t exactly sit back and wait and they pushed up when they could, however, they tried to leave little space between the midfield and defensive lines to make things difficult for Barça, and it was not unusual in the first half to see the entire Milan team back in their own half.
Despite the defensive approach from Milan, Barça started the game well. In the first few minutes Xavi sent a free kick wide, then after a quick one-two with Xavi, Messi burst towards the area and was only denied by Abate putting the ball out for a corner. Barça took the corner short with the ball coming inside to Busquets whose shot was deflected for another corner. Then soon after, in the 6th minute, Messi sent an excellent ball in for Neymar but the Brazilian’s control let him down.
There were good sensations from Barça. In the 11th minute Neymar tried a curler from the left but sent the ball well wide of the far post, then three minutes later Xavi stabbed a superb quick pass into Alexis but the ball got caught between the Chilean’s feet and Mexes had time to intervene. Alves tried his luck but missed the target from 25 yards, then Iniesta got a second attempt to thread a pass through to Adriano but the left back’s dangerous cross was missed by Messi, and Alexis couldn’t get enough of a touch to steer the ball in. From the resulting goal-kick Abbiati played it short to Mexes who passed back to the goalkeeper, giving Alexis the chance to charge at the keeper but despite getting in the way of Abbiati’s attempted clearance Alexis could only deflect the ball out for another goal kick.
Little by little Milan began to find their position and the chances started drying up. However, just when Barça seemed to be running out of ideas Iniesta sent a chip in towards Neymar who was impeded by Abate grabbing at his shoulder. The Brazilian spun to the ground and the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic pointed to the spot. Abbiati dived to his right as Messi powered the penalty straight down the middle and Barça were in front.
Milan didn’t manage a shot until the 35th minute when Poli pulled the ball back from the right but Montolivo sent his effort wide from 25 yards. However, as the Italians adopted a more attacking approach Barça began to find more chances to penetrate. Messi sent Alexis away with a delightful scoop pass but the Chilean’s cross clipped a defender and Abbiati was able to dive and gather. Then it was Iniesta who found the pass into the area for Messi who did well to resist Zapata’s challenge but as Abbiati came charging out of his goal Messi could only chip the ball across the goal and Mexes headed clear. Barça’s pressure paid off a minute later when Xavi sent in a free kick from the left and with the Milan defence looking for an offside Busquets was left free to stoop and head home Barça’s second.
Barça should have been home and dry at this point. Adriano might have made it 3-0 with a thirty yard drive but Abbiati palmed the ball over the bar. Then just before half-time Kaká for once escaped from Alves on the left, and just before Alves could recover Kaká sent in a low cross which clipped off Piqué’s right foot, leaving Valdés with no chance at his near post.
Milan were encouraged for the second half and Max Allegri replaced Robinho with Mario Balotelli. The controversial forward was soon in action, shaking off Mascherano’s challenge before going past Adriano to send in a low hard cross that Valdés did well to hold. Barça seemed divided between pushing for another goal and playing a more conservative approach. There was little threat on Abbiati’s goal as Barça were twice frustrated by the linesman. First, Messi was caught offside as Adriano’s shot hit him and then looped in for a disallowed goal. Then Neymar looked in line with the last defender as Xavi sent a fine pass through but the official raised his flag. Barça didn’t test Abbiati in the second half until the 59th minute, after a short corner Messi played the ball back for Iniesta who had to nudge the referee out of the way in order to shoot, Abbiati dived quickly to his left to save.
Milan continued to edge forward and Barça converted more and more to looking for the quick counter-attack. Mascherano needed to make a last-ditch tackle to thwart Balotelli, then a minute later the powerful Italian forward again got past Adriano and Mascherano to send a cross to the near post where Kaká, under pressure from Piqué, sent his shot narrowly wide. Two minutes later, as the visitors had their best spell of the game, Mascherano had to turn Emanuelson’s dangerous cross out for a corner.
However, Barça began to find chances again at the other end with Adriano shooting over from 25 yards. Neymar then went on the most incredible run, cutting inside from the left and going past Abate, Poli, Zapata and Mexes before missing his chance for a goal-of-the-season candidate by blazing well wide from close to the penalty spot.
Birsa replaced Poli with just over fifteen minutes remaining as Allegri looked for an equalizer but as Milan came forward Barça looked increasingly dangerous on the counter. There was one marvellous combination between Messi and Neymar which ended with the Argentinian slipping the ball right for Alexis, but tonight the Chilean was not as his most fortunate and Abbiati denied him with an excellent save.
Martino delayed any substitutions until the 78th minute when he decided to rest Iniesta and give a Fabregas a short run-out. Soon after, Milan had their final chance for an equalizer but Alves managed to cut out Montolivo’s pass towards the unmarked Muntari. Then in the 83rd minute Fabregas showed his worth playing a brilliant return to Messi who avoided Mexes’s lunge and outsprinted De Jong before keeping his cool to lift the ball over the advancing Abbiati and seal the win for Barça.
Messi might have had a hat-trick after another Fabregas pass sent him into the area but Mexes made a fine saving tackle. There were late substitutions with Pedro and Song replacing Neymar and Xavi but there was little time for them to do much. Milan had already run out of steam after the third goal and there was no more threat on Valdés’s goal. The three points leave Barça on 10 pts from four games in Group H, Milan remain second on five pts, Ajax are now third on four pts after beating Celtic 1-0 which leaves the Scottish side bottom of the group on three pts. One more point from the last two games will now guarantee top spot for Barça.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7, Mascherano 6.5, Adriano 6.5; Xavi 7.5 (Song m88, –), Busquets 8, Iniesta 7 (Fabregas m78, 7.5); Alexis 6, Messi 7, Neymar 7 (Pedro m85, –).
Milan; Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Emanuelson; Poli (Birsa m74), Montolivo, De Jong, Muntari; Kaká (Matri m84); Robinho (Balotelli h/t).
Goals: m30 Messi (pen) 1-0, m39 Busquets 2-0, m45 Piqué (o.g.) 2-1, m83 Messi 3-1.
Yellow cards: m29 Abate, m32 Muntari, m56 De Jong, m62 Alexis.