Messi sends barcelona through
Barcelona became the first team to make it to five consecutive European Cup semi-finals, potentially setting up another meeting with Chelsea. A 52nd-minute goal from Andrés Iniesta and the two previous penalties that gave Leo Messi 14 Champions League goals for the season, breaking José Atalfini’s 50-year-old record, took them to a 3-1 victory over Milan. As an added bonus, they did so without suspensions and without the returning Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring against them.
The night ended with songs and even an olé or two as the match slipped under Barcelona’s control. But it had not always appeared comfortable. Ibrahimovic had caused problems, there will be debate about the second penalty and, at least until Iniesta struck, this was a night in which the nerves invaded Camp Nou.
The 0-0 draw in the first leg left the tie on an edge, making it so that a single goal either way meant the greatest of swings. It also appeared to pose a dilemma for Barcelona: go for goals or go for control? Pep Guardiola was adamant that his team would attack – “our objective will be to create chances” The reason was simple: Milan, he said, would score. There was little point in protecting a slender lead where a solitary moment could mean elimination. Possession was as important as ever but it had to be with an attacking purpose.
That posed another problem: how to drag Milan out and create space. With that in mind, Alexis was left out for Isaac Cuenca. He gave width, right out on the left touchline. Dani Alves prowled high on the right, effectively leaving a high three-man defence. Messi and Cesc Fábregas were part centre forwards, part central midfielders, often creating a line of four up front: Cuenca, Fábregas, Messi, Alves. The plan was familiar for Barcelona; occupy space outside to create space inside. It was also risky.
Milan spread three across the middle. Ibrahimovic and Robinho were their outlets, with Kevin-Prince Boateng close to them. When they progressed, there was space and for Barcelona, there were nerves, even after they took an 11th-minute lead. Messi blocked Ignazio Abate’s pass and the rebound became a through-ball, the chase towards it a straight sprint. Messi beat Mexes to it. Rather than shooting, he laid it off to Xavi who, crowded out, nudged it to Iniesta. When the ball ran free to Messi, he turned past Luca Antonini and was brought down.
Messi’s low penalty squeezed in between the post and Christian Abbiati’s hand. Barcelona wanted an early goal, but this was not over. The home side continued to push. By half time Abbiati had made a handful of saves; few though were truly outstanding.
And just after the half-hour Barcelona had been caught. Ibrahimovic turned and slotted the ball into the path of Antonio Nocerino, who side-footed it past Victor Valdés. Barcelona had been warned and their nervousness was greater now. They had been looking for the second goal anyway but now desire became an obligation.
The second came from another penalty fractionally before half-time, and the first reaction all round this stadium was surprise. From a Barcelona corner, Sergio Busquets was held by Alessandro Nesta, pulled towards the ground, and Bjorn Kuipers blew. At first it was not clear what for but Milan’s players surrounding the referee was a clue. The wait for Messi was a long one, but the pressure did not stop him finding the other corner and scoring his 14th Champions League goal – the highest total in the history of the European Cup. If before Guardiola had assumed the risk, he now sought to minimise it. He immediately sent Alves to full back, establishing a line of four, and switched Cuenca over the right wing. Barcelona still attacked, though and so did Milan – in the very first minute of the second half they were appealing for a penalty of their own. The game remained on edge.
Not for long. Soon Messi’s run ended with his deflected shot squirming through to Iniesta, who controlled and knocked it past Abbiati. At last the home side had the cushion they craved; they could step down off that knife edge and keep the ball without the pressing need to score or the sense of impending doom every time Milan attacked. Robinho charged down Piqué’s clearance and raced through. Valdés made the save – what he didn’t know was that the referee had pulled the play back anyway.
The control was Barcelona’s and they continued to press high up the pitch, denying Milan the oxygen to emerge and attack them. The best chances fell Barcelona’s way too, Thiago putting the ball wide from Messi’s clever pass, Messi sliding in to try to reach Thiago’s late cross, and Adriano scuffing wide when clean through. There were few other opportunities. Barcelona no longer needed to seek them; they had earned the right not to. They had sought out and earned their place in the semi-final. Again.