Barca pass Milan test ahead of Clasico

Posted by Dermot Ledwith



There are perhaps "more questions than answers" to quote an old song, after Barca's 1-1 draw at Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday night.

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The result is a welcome one and it keeps the Blaugrana in control at the top of Group H, but with Saturday's clasico around the corner two draws in four days leaves Barca struggling for a bit of form ahead of the visit of the old enemy.

The plus points include the return of Lionel Messi from injury, who managed his first 90 minutes in more than a month. He also grabbed the important equaliser when it looked like Milan could run away with the game in the first half.

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However, to be hyper critical of the four time Ballon d'Or winner he looked a bit rusty on Tuesday. Perhaps it is merely a symptom of four weeks out but Barca fans will be hoping to see a different player at the weekend.

Plus there was a return for Javier Mascherano at the back, who settled down after gifting the Italians an early lead with some clumsy play.

Tata Martino had all four centre halves available for the first time this season. After Carles Puyol played for 90 minutes on Saturday, it was Mascherano's turn to get a full game under his belt in Milan. Who will now join Gerard Pique in the centre of defence on Saturday against Real Madrid is anybody's guess.

Although it was speculated that he would not start, Puyol could have expected at least a place on the bench in Milan, instead he was left in the stands at it seems his injury will treated with the upmost of caution after seven months out.

Marc Bartra would be very unlucky if he missed out against Real in the wake of Mascherano's early mistake and his recent form.

Tuesday's game can also be viewed as a good workout against quality European opposition who started the game playing the kind of high tempo football Madrid will bring to Camp Nou.

It was 58 seconds before Milan touched the ball on Tuesday as Barca kicked off and stepped straight into their usual possession play, but when they did get going the Italians were the better team in an intense opening spell of the kind to be expected on Saturday.

An early warning came when Robinho and Kaka combined on seven minutes to play in Sulley Muntari, who managed to hit the ball in the back of the net from an offside position. Two minutes later Robinho's goal stood; a result of an awful mix up between Mascherano who got first to a ball that should have been Pique's and it bounced kindly for the Milan man.

A word for the two former Madrid players in the Milan side: Kaka looked a different player to the one we were accustomed to seeing in Madrid; he chased and harried for 70 minutes and helped his team going forward.

On three minutes Robinho tried to do something I've only seen a Peruvian do to me in the park, when he attempted to lift the ball behind him and over his head and the head of Alexis Sanchez. It didn't come off, but he was lively all evening. Fortunately he was not so alert early in the second half when he inexplicably let a bouncing ball go through his legs when he only had the keeper to beat.

Barca finally settled and while Milan continued to look dangerous on the break Messi went close with a free kick before the equaliser came. Andres Iniesta picked up a loose ball in midfield after Sergio Busquets won a crunching tackle between two Milan midfielders; his intelligent pass found Messi who at first looked to be slower than his usual self and for a split second appeared to be going nowhere before unleashing a shot into the bottom right hand corner.

Barca had the chances to win it and were the stronger side; it was not a poor performance, it was just not up to the high standards that we are accustomed to.

Alexis looked busy and determined to win a place in the team on Saturday, but he could have done better on 38 minutes when supplied with a lovely pass from Xavi. Cesc Fabregas replaced him with 16 minutes to go, read into that what you will: was he being rested so he can start on Saturday? Or did Alexis do enough to hold a place in what Martino considers to be his strongest side?

All Fabregas did was pick up a silly yellow card for a kick, but he will be fresher than some for Saturday and could be in Martino's thinking for a starting position ahead of the Chilean or even Iniesta. However, Pedro could be thinking the same.

It was another long bout of Barca pressure that provoked space in the Milan defence on the stroke of half time but Neymar shot wide by a whisker. A wild kick by Riccardo Montolivo on the Brazilian added to the body of evidence that he is the most regularly assaulted player in world football, but even he had a quiet night by his standards so far in Europe.

Everyone is allowed a slightly below par performance, but Barca will need more from whatever combination of players Martino chooses if they are to claim three points and double their lead over Madrid in La Liga on Saturday.

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