Barcelona stage epic comeback to remember against AC Milan

Posted by Miguel Delaney

Quite simply, the most perfect response possible.

Barcelona are not just still in the Champions League, they are emphatically the team to beat. Indeed, it wasn't just that they eliminated AC Milan 4-0 (4-2) at Camp Nou on Tuesday, it was the manner in which it came -- every goal of exquisite quality, every recent criticism answered.

- Paul: Barca battering a lesson for Milan
- Tomas: Barca's Total Football triumphs


That sense of completeness also came in the very context of their qualification. In the aftermath of Milan's first-leg 2-0 win, Xavi attempted to put on what seemed like nothing more than a brave face when he said, “The one thing that is missing for this generation of players is a historic comeback.”

Now, they have one of rather epic proportions. Leo Messi, meanwhile, also has his first goals against an Italian side in the Champions League, finally banishing one of those last nonsense criticisms that were never anything more than coincidences. This, undisputedly, is a player for the biggest games and most demanding occasions.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Barca have overcome the first truly major crisis of confidence since Pep Guardiola took over in 2008. That's character to go with quality, and this era of Barcelona is most certainly not over yet.

If they're ticking off every box in a historic sense, though, they still haven't quite done so on the pitch.

The way in which Milan pushed Barca so close in the last 10 minutes -- and derived such defiant, desperate saving tackles from the likes of Jordi Alba --- points to persistent, unresolved problems that may yet come to trouble the Catalans again before this season ends. There was also the moment that the entire tie hinged on, in the first half, when M'Baye Niang hit the post just before Messi's magnificent second goal.

On this night, however, Barca rendered those flaws irrelevant by reverting to the approach that initially made them.

For a start, Jordi Roura abandoned the awkward Cesc Fabregas experiment, and restored the 2011 frontline of David Villa, Pedro and Messi. It ensured Xavi and Andres Iniesta were closer together as well as immediately injecting the intensity that had been missing in recent defeats.

Because, amid the difficulties of the past few weeks, there had been a somewhat misplaced argument that Barca's pressing-passing game -- or, tiki-taka, as it is somewhat clumsily called -- had passed its sell-by date. In truth, though, the team simply weren't applying that approach. They may still have been passing, as in the first leg against Milan, but with nowhere near the same urgency or enthusiasm. Similarly, the pressing appeared to have disappeared.

No more. At least not on this night.

Right from the very start of this game, Barca were roused into a response that recalled the absolute best of the 2008-11 period. Everything about the first goal, less than five minutes in, revealed a team that meant business; from the quick-fire touch passes to the shot that was well past Christian Abbiati before he even realised what was happening.

The key second goal, meanwhile, was reminiscent of Messi's winner in Barca's 3-1 win against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final. Of course, his second goal Tuesday came only after Niang had wasted that chance moments before.

There, Barca undeniably got lucky, and that was only amplified given the fact that Messi was offside as the ball was played to him for that fulminating strike.

Not one of the great teams in history, though, has won something without capitalising on some degree of luck. And the bigger question is now whether, having benefited from it, Barca can build on it in the way their great rivals at Real Madrid look likely to after a similar stroke of fortune at Old Trafford last week.

Much like Jose Mourinho's team, the Catalans may well be a team transformed now.

Because, ultimately, it's not all about luck. The entire Niang moment emphasised the most exacting truth of this level -- you have to take your opportunities with clinical tenacity.

Barca did that -- and more.

If such ties are all about inches and maximising space, there was barely a single flaw about the third goal. Not only did Xavi's pass elude Kevin Constant in the most teasing way, but Villa killed the ball and guided it into the far corner of the net in gorgeous fashion.

Sure, the last few minutes may have gotten a little ugly in comparison, but Barcelona responded as Jordi Alba made it 4-0. It was the story of the night.

It may be the story of the season. Once again, another team will have to come up with something pretty momentous to respond to this Barca.


ESPN Conversations