Barcelona have their historic comeback, and the world has further proof of Leo Messi’s wondrous works.
With the world awaiting a collapse and the pressure piling high, Barcelona ripped AC Milan, 4-0, on Tuesday night in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie. The decisive victory overturned Milan’s 2-0 advantage from last month’s first leg and put on hold the thought that Barcelona’s dynasty is on the way out.
Champions League winners in 2009 and 2011, Barcelona entered Tuesday’s make-or-break match knowing survival would require a historic performance. No team had previously overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win a Champions League tie, and not even Barcelona could claim such a comeback in their remarkable history.
But instead of shrinking from the pressure, Barca’s players talked up their hopes of completing a remontada, their own signature comeback, to add to their sterling resume.
“This generation (of Barcelona players) hasn’t made a comeback and we’d like to,” midfielder Xavi Hernandez said (via FCBarcelona YouTube).
Enter Messi, the miniature magician with almost divine powers.
Already elevated to almost immortal status after a record-setting 2012 and his fourth straight Ballon d’Or, Messi produced another match-winning display worthy of his impossibly lofty reputation on Tuesday.
In the process, the prolific Argentine also notched another record—his 13th Champions League brace is joint-most in history (per Opta)—and moved into second place on the competition’s all-time scoring charts at the age of 25.
And yet, ahead of Tuesday’s second leg, the teams appeared headed along opposite trajectories.
AC Milan had started the season miserably, losing three of their first four league matches after selling star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer. But the squad developed steadily, with the turnaround reaching its crescendo three weeks ago at the San Siro in a stunning defensive masterclass.
Barcelona, on the other hand, endured a string of poor results starting with the loss in Milan. Six days later, Barca lost, 3-1, at home to rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals. Four more days later, the same teams met again in the league, with Real winning at home, 2-1.
Barca maintained a commanding league lead despite the losses, but coupled with the news that first-year manager Tito Vilanova was receiving treatment for throat cancer in New York, the club’s veneer of invincibility appeared badly damaged.
Messi had failed to score in both the cup loss to Real and the first leg against Milan, when he had only one touch in the box and didn’t put a single shot on target (via@FoxSoccer). Silly as it sounds now, some foresaw more of the same in Catalonia.
Within five minutes, though, it wasn’t to be.
Before Milan could settle, Messi put Barca on track with a brilliant left-footed shotinto the top corner past Christian Abbiati. It was vintage Messi, a showcase of his supernatural feet—and most alarming of all for defenders, he wasn’t even open.
Abbiati came up with a pair of sprawling saves after Messi’s opener, helping Milan gain a foothold. The visitors even produced chances of their own, but inevitably, it was Messi who claimed the game’s second goal.
Messi cut in from the right and finished low past Abbiati at the near post, and this time, he leveled the tie on aggregate. By then, as Barcelona enjoyed their customarydominance of possession, only one team was going through.
David Villa scored the crucial third early in the half, and Jordi Alba iced it in stoppage time, reducing Barca fans to tears and placing Europe on notice once again. Barcelona are back, if they were ever gone at all, and Messi’s magic will have a say in where the Champions League title resides this spring.
But for all the hard-earned euphoria, a nagging truth remains: Barcelona are beatable.
Their second-leg comeback exposed Milan’s immaturity, but that same inexperienced side defeated mighty Barca by two clear goals a mere three weeks ago.
And although Alba’s late goal gave his team an assured 4-2 aggregate victory, Barcelona played the final half-hour until then knowing a single Milan strike would spell away-goal doom.
Milan had chances, too. Twice in the first half, Stephan El Shaarawy stole into pockets of space behind the Barca defense, only to shoot weakly on both occasions. And literally seconds before Messi’s second, M’Baye Niang hit the home team’s upright after escaping from Javier Mascherano on a well-placed long ball.
In the run-up to kickoff, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri had spoken of standing up to Barcelona and playing better even than the first leg (via ESPN FC). It wasn’t to be this time for Milan, but one can’t help but think they will be back soon, and with a better team at that.
This night belonged to Barca and Messi, and in every respect, the comeback was a memorable and epic adventure. But to ignore the lessons of the first leg would be a mistake, even if Messi’s left foot undid all of Milan’s work in 40 exhilarating minutes.
Now, with the balance of the Champions League campaign, we wait to see which result was a fluke.