After enduring two long weeks of journalists, detractors, and even their own fans proclaiming the culmination of an era of dominance, Football Club Barcelona were determined to not allow their historical run to end just yet at the Camp Nou today.
The writing was on the wall early for AC Milan after Lionel Messi blasted a beautiful left footed shot into the far corner of the net in just the fifth minute, leaving goalkeeper Christian Abbiati with absolutely no chance. After being outclassed by Cristiano Ronaldo in the previous two Clasicos, Messi showed up today to remind everyone that he is still the best player in the world. He was brilliant throughout, scoring two goals, constantly threatening the Milan back line, and putting his doubters to rest.
The game took a colossal swing in just two minutes late in the first half. First, a ball over the top was not properly cleared by Barça defender Javier Mascherano, and his poor header fell into the path of 18-year-old M’Baye Niang, who was in one-on-one with keeper Victor Valdes. Niang opted for a powerful shot, but it crashed off the far post, and Milan were unable to put the rebound home. Not even 90 seconds later, the ball was back in Milan’s half, and a failed clearance landed at the feet of Andres Iniesta. The midfielder quickly found Messi, who this time beat Abbiati at his near post as the home side were in full ascendancy.
Barcelona made a key change to the squad that lost two games to Real Madrid in a span of 5 days as well as to Milan in the first leg. Midfielder Cesc Fábregas started on the bench, and Spain striker David Villa got the nod up front. This brought Iniesta back into the midfield, always considered his ideal place, where he was crucial to his team’s dominance of the match. Villa did not put in his best performance but redeemed the manager’s decision to start him when he scored what turned out to be the tie-winning third goal in the 55th minute.
After such a great display at the San Siro two weeks ago, Milan were flat out awful for most of today’s match. They were clearly hassled by Barcelona’s aggressive pressing tactics, and often were unable to string more than two passes together, repeatedly losing the ball in their own third of the pitch. Only when Milan were down 3-0 and needing an away goal to go through did they even generate any sustained possession in Barcelona’s half.
One will have to question Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri’s decisions after this performance. In addition to starting with the unexperienced Niang, he left Sully Muntari, who scored a goal in the first leg, on the bench for Frenchman Mathieu Flamini. Flamini suffered a head injury early on, and maybe that can explain his poor touches, wayward passes, and clumsy challenges, including a yellow card in first half stoppage time. He was mercifully removed in the 75th minute for former Barcelona man Bojan Krkic. Coincidentally, Milan played their best football of the game in the quarter hour that followed. By then, Allegri had also brought on Muntari and the Brazilian Robinho, and one must wonder what could have been for Milan if those two players had started the match. The Italian side brought more and more men forward searching for a deciding goal, but ultimately ended up getting caught out at the back. Barcelona hit them with a quick counter attack in stoppage time, which Jordi Alba finished to make it 4-0 as the Catalan crowd erupted in victory cheers.
Galatasaray also won today away at Schalke, putting 6 teams officially in the quarter finals. Bayern Munich are set to play Arsenal tomorrow at the Allianz Arena, but are already all but through after a 3-1 win in the first leg at the Emirates. That leaves tomorrow’s Porto – Málaga match up as the only unknown going forward. Bayern, Madrid, Barça, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund may all be thought of as favorites to take the trophy, but the mathematics of the draw mean that at least two of these teams will feature against each other in the next round. Barcelona, meanwhile, has gone from the brink of elimination to being considered perhaps the most likely side to lift the cup at Wembley in May.