Messi leaves no doubts in Barcelona win

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Many doubts were left unresolved for most of the evening, the biggest of all until the 83rd minute, to be precise. However, when Lionel Messi received the ball 25 yards from goal and looked up, he needed just four touches to find a path to goal and settle this contest.

A 3-1 win over AC Milan to guarantee qualification to the Champions League last 16 can never be undervalued. Barca dominated proceedings and deserved the win, but the real debate was over Messi and his recent goal-scoring form.

- Report: Barcelona 3-1 Milan
- Five Aside: Messi goals highlight UCL

Minutes before that goal, he had chased onto a long ball through the centre but was easily beaten for speed by Nigel de Jong, so easily in fact that the final assessment of the Argentinian's performance was in doubt. It would have been different had it not been for that brilliant conclusive goal.

He did grab the first of the night from the penalty spot to end his mini drought, and was central to most of what Barca did all evening. It could also be argued that he looked a little sharper and quicker than he had in recent tough games against Real Madrid and Espanyol.

But until he created another special goal that has become his trademark, nobody was totally convinced. He admitted himself after Friday's win over Espanyol that he was not on top of his game: "It's clear that I am not 100 percent yet physically, I'm sure that as the games go by I will get back up to speed."

Zero goals in four games since a return from injury was described as a slight dip in form by some, while others, mostly in the Spanish capital, called it a crisis.

Just how anyone who has now hit 65 goals in just 82 Champions League games, only six fewer than Raul at the top of the list, can have a crisis is anybody's guess.

And why should he come straight back with a bang? He is 26 now, not a kid anymore who can shake off injuries in no time. He has obviously been suffering since the end of last season with a number of muscular problems that have slightly lowered his high standards; a crisis it never was.
The decisive goal came when Milan had begun to leave more space at the back, after stout defending earlier on.

Sergio Busquets earlier headed Barca's second after Neymar had been fouled for the umpteenth time and Xavi floated over the perfect free kick from the left.

The Italians needed to get something from the game to keep both Celtic and Ajax at distance for second position in the group, and they improved in the second half after Kaka had earned a lifeline just before halftime with a lucky deflection off Gerard Pique after a strong run past Dani Alves.

A switch of Robinho for Mario Balotelli was the main reason for that improvement. Barca seemed to lack the cutting edge to kill off the Italians, while not suffering too much at the other end. As usual, they had huge swathes of possession and a number of shots without actually testing the experienced Christian Abbiati enough in the Milan goal.

A jinking cross-field dribble from Neymar nearly provided his first Champions League goal on 73 minutes, but he skewed his shot wide. A minute later he combined with Messi to tee up Alexis Sanchez and the Chilean should have put the game beyond doubt, but Abbiati made a great save to keep Milan in the game.

Messi attempted the impossible task of walking through the Italian defence himself on a number of occasions before that lack of speed against de Jong.

Two minutes later, though, he reminded the world what he is capable of, four touches between him and Cesc Fabregas to plant the ball in the back of the net. That is what he does best, and although he may not do it now with as much regularity as in previous years, Messi and this Barca side are slowly finding new ways of hurting teams.

Tata Martino said before the game. "What about his goal drought? It does not matter who gets the goals, the important thing is that Barca score." And this is a man who knows, as coach he is yet to lose a game now from 18 played.

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