Madrid: Two goals from Lionel Messi led a stunning Barcelona fightback as they overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit against AC Milan with a 4-0 demolition of the Italians at the Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
Indeed it was a night so perfect for the Blaugrana, it was almost as if they had planned it all along.
After defeat in the San Siro three weeks ago, Xavi pointed out that the only thing this generation of Barca players were lacking after three league, two Champions Leagues and two Copa del Rey titles over the past four seasons was historic European comeback.
A comeback that in the end was achieved by almost single-handedly picking off the doubts that had lingered over an unconvincing past couple of weeks.
The murmurings over Messi’s record against Italian sides, the lack of support for the Argentine when it comes to goalscoring and their inability to keep a clean sheet were all answered in emphatic style in a night that will live long in the memory of those who savoured it at the Camp Nou.
Messi, as is customary, got the party started with a sumptuous curling shot into the top corner after just five minutes to get the atmosphere rocking and break his duck from open play against Italian sides at the 10th time of asking.
The crucial period of the match then truly began as Barca swarmed forward towards Christian Abbiati’s goal sensing their prize was there for the taking. The Italian keeper halted their momentum with two outstanding saves from Andres Iniesta drives, but despite the possession stats that weighed heavily in the hosts favour all night, it wasn’t all one way traffic.
Barca’s insistence to play on the front foot consistently left gaps to be exploited in behind their marauding full-backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. Stephan El Shaarawy, Kevin-Prince Boateng and M’Baye Niang however weren’t as deadly on the counter-attack as they had been in the first-leg and the tie was swung decisively in Barca’s favour by a two-minute passage of play just before half-time.
At one end Niang sprinted clear through on goal, set himself ahead of the on-rushing Victor Valdes and rolled the ball past the keeper only to see it agonisingly bounce to safety off the foot of the post.
Moments later Messi weaved another opening onto his deadly left-foot and uncorked a rasping low drive that left Abbiati helpless to equal the score on aggregate.
Thereafter there seemed only one winner, especially once a trademark Xavi pass had cut the Milan defence wide open 10 minutes after the break and David Villa provided the clinical finish that has been lacking from any Barca player bar Messi all season.
With their rustiness in front of goal well and truly mended it was left to a defence that, before Saturday’s 2-0 win over Deportivo la Coruna, had conceded in 13 straight games to hold firm for the next 35 minutes, which they did valiantly despite the odd scare.
And in true Barca style they sealed it with a touch of carefree elegance as with the clock just having ticked into stoppage time and just needing to hold out to qualify, their left-back Alba galloped the full length of the pitch to clip home Alexis Sanchez’s cross.
Within 90 minutes the Catalans had gone from the supposed end of era back to Champions League favourites. And having been resuscitated it would take a brave punter to bet against them returning to Wembley to win the competition for a third time in the English capital come May.