FC Barcelona progressed to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League for the fifth season in succession thanks to a 3-1 win over Serie A leaders AC Milan. Barcelona were far from their best, but Milan’s decision making at the back was suspect to say the least and ensured that Barcelona could get away with their above average performance. First off, Luca Antonini made a rash decision to dive into a slide tackle in the area, bringing down Lionel Messi in the process. The Argentine calmly dispatched the penalty, and the Blaugrana looked to be in control. However, Milan were still in the tie, and Antonio Nocerino’s composed finish threatened to turn the tie on its head. At 1-1, Milan would have progressed if there was no further scoring, but again Barcelona were let off the hook as Alessandro Nesta gave away a needless penalty for a blatant shirt-pull on Sergio Busquets as Barca prepared to take a corner. Messi duly dispatched the penalty again, and Barcelona were back in front. As the game progressed, chances became few and far between for both sides, but Barcelona put the tie beyond any doubt with Andres Iniesta slotting the ball past Christian Abbiati after Messi’s shot was blocked by Mexes. With Barcelona and Bayern Munich booking their place in the semi-finals, all attention turns to Real Madrid and Chelsea to complete the ideal semi-final line-up.
Pep Guardiola once again sprung a surprise with his team selection, opting for Isaac Cuenca ahead of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro. Xavi also started despite question marks surrounding his fitness after the emergence of a calf problem, and Cesc Fabregas was placed upfront after a two game absence attributed to a back injury. It was a gutsy decision from Pep, but judging by the final scoreline, it was one that paid off handsomely.
Barcelona started brightly, far better than last week at least, and within minutes you could see that there was a lot more space on this Camp Nou pitch. Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta combined with a one-two, but the latter scuffed his shot wide of the goal. Milan also started well as both sides looked to find an early goal, and Clarence Seedorf picked out the late run of Nocerino with a superb diagonal cross, but the Italian’s low cross was cleared away by Sergio Busquets before Milan could direct it goalwards.
The first clear-cut chance of the game fell to Barcelona, and amazingly fell to Lionel Messi. Dani Alves was operating as an out-and-out right winger and his driven cross to Cesc Fabregas caught the Milan defense out just a little, enough to allow Cesc the time and space to flick the ball over the top to Lionel Messi. As per usual, the Argentine controlled the pass beautifully, but his toe-poked effort went wide at the far post. Six minutes in, and Barcelona should have taken the lead.
However, four minutes later, they did. Messi’s surging run into the area looked dangerous, but La Pulga made a rather baffling decision to cut the ball for Xavi, who in tur tried to supply Iniesta, but it was intercepted by Milan’s hero from the first leg, Luca Antonini. The left-backs touch was vital in denying a chance, but also gifted possession back to Barcelona, and in an attempt to compensate, Luca dived into the tackle, bringing down Lionel Messi in the process. As expected, Kuipers pointed to the spot and showed Antonini a yellow card for his troubles. Up stepped Lionel Messi, and there was only ever going to be one outcome: Messi placing the penalty in the bottom corner.
It was a gift from Milan, but on reflection, Barcelona were dominating up until that point.
From there on in, it seemed to be a mere formality. Barcelona were moving the ball about nicely, keeping possession and looking threatening as well. Milan looked assured, if a little shaky, with the match shaping up similar to the first leg. Then, just after the half-hour mark, disaster struck for the Blaugrana.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was fed the ball deep in the Barcelona half, and the Swede used his strength, skill and underrated vision to pick out the late run of Nocerino (sound familiar) who kept his composure to slot the ball past Victor Valdes for the equaliser. As it stood at the time, a 1-1 draw would have been sufficient for Milan to progress via the away goals rule. Replays show that it was Javier Mascherano who played Nocerino onside, but really, you have to give a little more credit to Nocerino for delaying his run as much as possible to stay onside, and for the finish. Perhaps it wasn’t "deserved" on the balance of play, but Milan’s goal didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
As one might expect, that was the cue for a bit of panic amongst a few Culés, but it was important that the players kept their heads and carried on doing what they doing previous to the goal. Xavi and Cesc combined brilliantly before Fabregas was brought down; leaving Xavi with no choice but to send a long-range effort at goal that was tipped away by Abbiati. Then "it" happened.
Barcelona were preparing to take a corner, and as the ball was swung in by Xavi, Busquets fell to the floor, and I thought nothing more of it – after all, this thing happens a lot in top level football. However, Bjorn Kuipers changed the game completely by blowing his whistle. Initially, I was confused as he didn’t make an obvious gesture towards the penalty spot, but as time wore on, and as Nesta received a yellow card, it became apparent Barcelona had their second penalty of the match. Messi stepped up calmly and sent Abbiati the wrong way to give Barcelona a 2-1 lead, and to equal the completion record for goals in a single campaign, but the talk will surround the penalty decision.
In light of this, here are a couple of facts.
FACT: Law 12 of the FIFA rulebook indicates a foul can be called for a number of reasons including "Holding an opponent" and "Impeding an opponent/obstruction". Nesta’s clear shirt pull is a violation of both.
FACT: Law 12 also indicates that if a player "holds an opponent" then play is restarted "with a direct free-kick for the opposing team where the offense occurred, unless said offence took place in the area, where a penalty kick should be given".
FACT: Law 12 continues to state that to deal with these situations (when a player holds an opponent), the referee should "award a direct free-kick or penalty and caution the player if it happens once the ball is in play".
So, in summary, the referee was entirely correct to award the penalty.
Messi nearly completed his hat-trick just before half-time, but his weak effort was scrambled away by Abbiati, and Barcelona went into the break with the tie far from over at 2-1.
In truth, much like last week’s match, the second half was pretty dull for the most part. Both sides struggled to create chances, with Barcelona keeping the majority of the possession. At 2-1, Milan still had a chance at progression, but didn’t show enough urgency in attack, nor did they attack often enough to threaten Barcelona’s place in the semi-finals. In fact, their defensive attitude led to Barcelona’s third of the night, and sealed their elimination from the competition.
Lionel Messi was the "architect" but if we really want to pick out who got the assist, it would have to be Philippe Mexes. Messi’s dribble and shot was harmless enough, until Mexes threw himself in the way, with the ball taking a huge deflection which kindly fell to the feet of Andres Iniesta. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, Iniesta was ever going to make a mistake, and fired the ball past Abbiati to seal Barcelona’s place in the semis for the fifth successive season, and the first time since Real Madrid managed the feat way back in the 50s.
Both teams made a few substitutions, with Alberto Aquilani entering the fray in place of Seedorf and largely doing nothing at all, before Thiago replaced Xavi. Mascherano received a yellow card for a perfectly executed (if a little rash) slide tackle on Robinho, before Barcelona created another chance with Pique’s surging run the key factor. From there, he drew multiple Milan players towards the ball, and when he handed the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, the Catalan could pick out the run of Lionel Messi who was in acres of space. Unselfishly the Argentine set up Thiago for a shot, but the youngster screwed his left-footed shot wide of the far post.
Alexandre Pato made his long-awaited comeback, replacing Kevin-Prince Boateng, before there was cause for concern on the Barca bench as Gerard Pique pulled up holding his hamstring. Geri was able to walk off the pitch to be replaced by Adriano, but the severity of his injury is unlikely to be discovered until tomorrow when tests have taken place. Unfortunately for Milan, Pato also had to be replaced by Maxi Lopez in an apparent recurrence of the injury that has kept him sidelined for so long.
Adriano was guilty of missing a chance in added-on time, but by then the match was basically over, and Barcelona were through! All eyes now are on Chelsea, as they look to complete the job against Benfica at Stamford Bridge to set up a rematch of the 2008 semi-final. Personally, I cannot wait!
Make sure you vote below in our community player ratings, and next up for Barca is a trip to relegation threatened Real Zaragoza! Visca el Barca!