Lionel Messi is an extremely generous man, and he gave another gift to the world Tuesday night in Barcelona, Spain as his team dismantled AC Milan 4-0 (4-2 aggregate) to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals where they belong. Things had been looking pretty grim of late for the world’s best soccer team. FCBarcelona, though truly outclassing its own league (La Liga) this season, had in the last three weeks lost two consecutive matches to arch rival Real Madrid and been shut out 2-0 in their Champions League road tilt at AC Milan. The gossip about this being the beginning of the end grew cacophonous. A team with talent, it was said, could bunker its defense, close down lanes, disrupt with fouls, convert on counters, and ultimately defeat Barca’s technical wizardry. After all, isn’t that exactly what Chelsea had done to them last April in the CL semifinals? It was sad to think of Barcelona getting regularly beaten by inferior opponents—if only because the less they win, the less often the world gets to see them play. And the recent scenario was grim indeed, as no Champions League team had ever overcome a 2-0 road loss in its first home-and-home leg. Just to tie the series, Barca had to score two goals against a notoriously tough defensive team while not allowing any, because away goals are the first tiebreaker.
Enter a rejuvenated Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi. Tuesday night, FCBarcelona attacked with new-found intensity. Barely five minutes in, after a rapid series of short passes just outside the eighteen-yard box, Messi, surrounded by defenders, simultaneously received a Xavi pass with his right foot, touched it to his already swinging left, and deposited said ball in the upper left corner of the net. The shot was so deft and quick that, well, let’s just say it’s worth paying your cable company extra money just to see the replay. At 35 minutes the TV displayed a surprising statistic. Apparently Barcelona had 71% possession of the ball compared to Milan’s 29%. In soccer, 60-40 in is extremely dominant. Yet as a viewer what surprised me was that Milan’s possession had actually registered so high. They simply could not keep the ball against Barca’s relentless pressure. Then, in minute 38, the world nearly lost its ticket to the Barca show. Taking advantage of predictably poor Barca defending, Milan’s 18-year-old striker, M’Baye Niang, raced in on a breakaway. His shot beat the goalie, but struck the post. (Deep sigh.) They had missed their golden chance. 69 seconds later, Messi gloriously struck again, this time from Iniesta. Again to his left, the defender and keeper and everyone expecting far post, Messi cleverly waited as the defender’s foot reached to block, and instead fired between the now open legs, near post. And in. Riotous joy in Camp Nou and in my living room. With the second half ten minutes old, Barcelona’s pressure again won the ball in Milan’s end. Xavi delivered a surgical pass to David Villa in the box, and after doing little all game, Villa finished clinically. 3-0. But that pesty away goal still lingered. Milan finally pressed, and Barcelona’s drama-prone defense made it very exciting. At the end, mercifully, Barca themselves countered, and, still aggressive, their left back Jordi Alba finished it. 4-0. The soccer world was given a gift Tuesday night. We get to see Iniesta and Xavi and Messi play more football matches.