Catalans break records to advance to Champions League quarters
In doing so, Barcelona became the first team to proceed to the next knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League after overturning a two-goal away deficit to win 4-2 on aggregate.
David Villa recovered from illness to join Xavi who’d overcome a hamstring injury to feature in this game. Surprisingly, Javier Mascherano replaced Carles Puyol.
No team has ever overcome a 2-0 away defeat to seal progress, and Barcelona would have to rewrite history to do. Key to that was talisman Lionel Messi, who lined up alongside Pedro and Villa.
AC Milan decided to shake things up as well. Their rearguard was the same as it was in Italy two weeks ago, but up front, Kevin-Prince Boateng led the line along with Stephan El Sharaawy and new signing Mbaye Niang.
This was a Barcelona that had been ailing over the last few weeks. But just five minutes after kick-off, Messi provided exactly what the doctor ordered.
Xavi picked up the ball outside the box and slid in the Argentine, who took one touch before rocketing a brilliant drive past a dazed Christian Abbiati to put the hosts in the lead and halve the Milanese advantage.
Milan attempted to respond in kind. El Sharaawy, much as he had done in the first leg, picked his way past the home defenders, but his first touch was extremely poor and his tame effort was easily gathered up by Valdes.
Four more half-chances came Barcelona’s way. Xavi’s lob was blotted out by Ignazio Abate who had illegally removed Pedro from the equation according to replays. Messi attempted a similar strike to his first, but Philippe Mexes closed him down.
Messi then tested Abbiati twice in quick succession. His stinging drive forced the Italian into action and his header into the side-netting following Xavi’s cross to the far post had the keeper sprawling.
Barcelona were looking extremely dangerous.
A Milan corner aside, Barcelona continued to press. Villa was clean through on goal after some shoddy defending and Abbiati scooped up the ball before any damage could occur. Messi was then nullified by Abate. The Argentine muffed a 17th minute header after the keeper hesitated to come out to a Barcelona cross.
Barcelona were winning a succession of corners, varying them nicely both short and long as they kept the Milanese on their toes.
Milan being on the receiving end of Barca’s waiting game was getting to them. Boateng was booked by referee Viktor Kassai after a poor challenge.
But as the first half wore on, Milan attempted to steady the ship. Niang’s cross from the right was met by El Sharaawy, who screwed his acrobatic effort horribly wide. The Italian then cut in past Pique, but his daisycutter was directed straight at Valdes.
Pedro’s snapshot went wide. Iniesta tried to find Villa, but he was offside. Dani Alves’ cross was cleared by Christian Zapata.
Milan were then denied a chance to put this tie to bed. A long clearance and a poor Mascherano header fell straight at the feet of Niang, who sprung the offside trap and fired goalwards, but was cruelly denied by the post.
But five minutes before half-time, Barcelona wiped out Milan’s lead.
Ambrosini lost possession to Iniesta, who fed Messi just outside the box. The number ten waited for Mexes to commit himself before blasting a low drive past Abbiati to pull the Blaugrana level.
Two moments of genius from the little wizard had set the Camp Nou rocking.
For all the impressive attacking prowess Barcelona were displaying, they defended very poorly at the back. Milan, however, failed to take advantage.
The hosts began the second half in similar fashion to the first. Messi’s effort was clean and directed goalwards just two minutes after the restart, but Abbiati was equal to that effort.
Niang was turning out to be a potent attacking threat in the opening stages of the second half, but his end product from crosses and corners left much to be desired.
Mexes was the latest in the referee’s book. The France international was booked for scything down Messi out wide, meaning he will miss Milan’s next European game if there is one this season.
There might not be one: David Villa made it number three just ten minutes into the restart.
A Xavi pass was not dealt with by the sliding Kevin Konstant and it was picked up by Spain’s all time leading goal scorer as he curled home a sweet left-footed finish to put Barcelona 3-2 up on aggregate.
Milan knew, though, that one goal would be enough to see them through. Ambrosini and Niang were replaced by Sulley Muntari and Robinho as the Italians decided to inject some offensive flair into their team.
But it was still all Barcelona. Messi played in Alves from a free kick three minutes after the hour, but his shot was speared straight at Abbiati from a tight angle.
Milan now attempted to step their game up a gear. Abate pinged in a searching cross, but there was no one in the box to receive. Muntari then tried to tee up Flamini, but his first touch bounced straight to Valdes. Boateng was presented with a glance at goal, but Barcelona conspired to clear.
Messi was presented with a set-piece opportunity 17 minutes from time, but his free kick hit the wall. Immediately afterwards, Villa was withdrawn for Alexis Sanchez to very warm applause from the Catalan faithful.
Bojan was brought on to face his former club as Milan now brought men forward. He was immediately influential, trying to pierce Valdes’ goal with a run through the centre of the pitch and then playing in Robinho, whose goal bound effort was blocked by Jordi Alba as the Nou Camp watch with bated breath.
Alexis Sanchez put the ball in the back of the net, but amidst angry screams from the home fans, his goal was ruled out for offside.
Puyol was brought on for the hard-working Mascherano as Barcelona tried to sew up this game in the final ten minutes. Adriano replaced Pedro on the right.
Amidst whistles of derision, Milan poured forward in the final five minutes of the game. Bojan was charged down by Pique before the striker could inflict any damage.
The air around the stadium grew nervous as the minutes ticked by. Would Barcelona go through?
They did: Alba led a counter and finished coolly past Abbiati to make it 4-2 on aggregate in the third of the three minutes of added time to send more than 90,000 fans into peals of delirium.
Milan had been comprehensively beaten. Barcelona did seal qualification to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
And they did so breaking records on the way.
Barcelona 4-0 AC Milan (Messi 5′ and 40′, Villa 55′, Alba 90′+3)
Barcelona win 4-2 on aggregate
Referee: Victor Kassai
Barcelona: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano (Puyol 77′), Pique, Alba; Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi (c); Villa (Sanchez 75′), Pedro (Adriano 84′), Messi
Subs not used: Pinto, Song, Fabregas, Tello
Asst. Manager: Jordi Roura
AC Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Konstant; Ambrosini (c) (Robinho 60′), Flamini (Bojan 75′), Montolivo; El Sharaawy, Niang (Muntari 60′), Boateng
Subs not used: Amelia, de Sciglio, Bonera, Nocerino
Manager: Massimiliano Allegri
Barcelona: Shots (on target): 13 (6), Corners: 6, Fouls: 6, Offsides: 2, Yellow Cards: 1, Red Cards: 0, Saves: 2
AC Milan: Shots (on target): 10 (2), Corners: 19, Fouls: 3, Offsides: 5, Yellow Cards: 3, Red Cards: 0, Saves: 3
Barcelona vs Rayo Vallecano, 17/03/2013, Camp Nou, La Liga BBVA
AC Milan vs Palermo, 17/03/2013, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Serie A