Barcelona’s blip is over
Barcelona’s blip is over. Their era of dominance isn’t.
The Catalans were breathtaking at the Nou Camp on Tuesday as they ripped AC Milan to shreds in a 4-0 thrashing to become the only team to come back from a 2-0 deficit to progress in the Champions League.
It was the comeback that Barca were long due — a comeback that fittingly ended all talk of a crisis at the club.
During the last five years, arguably the best in Barca’s history which saw the club claim a whopping 14 titles, the Catalans had never managed to comeback from a first-leg deficit to advance.
As defending champions in 2010, Barca were knocked in the semi-finals out by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan after they lost the first-leg 3-1 at the San Siro.
Last year, again as defending champions and again in the semis, they were undone by an unbreakable Chelsea side after losing the first-leg 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.
After losing to Milan in the first-leg, Barca were left with all to do in the return leg.
In between, they lost two ‘Clasicos’ to Mourinho’s well-drilled Real Madrid side. A 3-1 defeat dumped them out of the Copa del Rey before they lost the La Liga fixture 2-1 to their arch-rivals.
A 2-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga on Saturday helped them bounce back but the tie against Milan three days later was slated to be the acid test of their credentials.
Football journalists across the world were preparing to write their European obituary with the Catalan side of course a massive 13 points clear of Real at the top of La Liga.
It wasn’t going to happen.
Twenty-four hours before the match, Barca defender Gerard Pique was fielding questions from reporters in a press conference at the club’s training ground in Saint Joan Despi.
His optimism in a possible comeback was baffling.
“I have no doubts that despite the criticism of recent weeks, this team is going to respond tomorrow,” Pique said.
The response was a fiery backlash against Milan with one of the most emphatic victories for the club in the modern era.
Lionel Messi was the orchestrator and everything flowed just like in the past — in the 4-0 hammering of Bayern Munich four years ago, the 4-1 demolition of Arsenal in 2010 and the 7-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen last year.
The Argentine World Player of the Year opened the scoring with a delightful quick-footed shot before sending them 2-0 up at half-time with another sublime finish.
David Villa, restricted to the bench for long stretches this season, curled in another early in the second-half before Jordi Alba wrapped it up after a lung-bursting run down the left flank to seal a historic win.
This was a vintage Barca performance — one that has drawn appreciation from around the world and guided them to two Champions League titles in the last four seasons.
It was as if they were teaching the Rossoneri a footballing lesson.
Messi, criticized for being below-par during the last few weeks, formed a perfect Bermuda triangle with Xavi and Andres Iniesta in which many a team have lost their bearings.
Their passing and movement in full flow defied trigonometric ratios and it was as if they had rediscovered their old elan and their old verve, something which seemed forgotten in the first-leg.
At the Nou Camp, they screeched around, cheered by some 99,000 supporters, finding each other and bringing others into the game with precision passing and creating chance after chance.
Ahead of the game, former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi told Sport newspaper the reasons for Barca’s recent lack of form.
“Many things have happened to Barcelona. First, Pep Guardiola leaving, then [coach] Tito Vilanova’s cancer diagnosis and them also being in an uncompetitive league. All that has meant that Barcelona seem to be a tired team. They have lost its zest — and so has Messi,” he said.
On evidence of Tuesday’s performance, Barca seem to be in the mindset of quieting the doubters right now, just like Messi is himself.
A sensational comeback kept alive their dream of a third final in Wembley.
But the story of the comeback wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Villa, who really epitomizes the comeback.
The striker, who has had a lean spell since his return from a broken leg earlier this season, looked seemingly out of the frame when Barca were ever so rampant at the turn of the year.
Cesc Fabregas’ form of the early part of the season faded away and Villa vindicated his selection on Tuesday with the goal that was ultimately the clincher.
“When you go through such a night all the bad days are forgotten,” said Villa after the match. “After experiencing what we did tonight we don’t care who we get in the quarter-finals!”
Europe has been warned.