Lionel Messi added another chapter to his book of miracles by scoring the game's first two goals as FC Barcelona crushed Milan 4-0 Tuesday night at the Camp Nou to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League with a 4-2 aggregate score. The reports of the demise of the world's best soccer team are greatly exaggerated. Barça went through a tough February, but when the Blaugrana had their backs to the wall, in the most important game of the season, they responded with an epic performance. This game was a defining moment for this generation of Barça players, whose legacy is still a work in progress.
It was a magical night for Barça and Messi set the tone only five minutes into the game with a fabulous strike with his golden left foot, which sent the ball into the right upper corner before Milan goalkeeper Abbiati could have a reaction. The unexpected early goal made the Camp Nou explode and gave Barcelona assurance and patience, while the Rossoneri lost their aplomb even before settling down in their trenches.
With Xavi (back from a hamstring injury) and Iniesta controlling the midfield with supreme skill and authority, the game was like a one-way street, with Milan suffocated in its half. The visitors, however, had a great chance to score when Mascherano mishandled a long Milan defensive clearance and young Niang found himself alone with Valdes. He beat Barça's keeper, but the shot hit the post. Football is often a cruel sport, but for once its gods were on Barcelona's side. Instead of 1-1 it became 2-0 two minutes later when Messi's powerful razzo terra through Mexes' legs beat Abbiati again. Messi 2, Milan 0.
It was more of the same in the second half, and Villa made it 3-0 quickly, curling a left footer into the corner after a great pass from Xavi. Forced to attack, Milan made it more interesting, but the suspense over Camp Nou wasn't generated as much by the Italians' ability to create dangerous actions, but by the known proclivity of Barça's defense to shoot itself in the foot. Alba blocked Robinho's shot inside the box late in the game, then he added the insurance goal in extra time sprinting the length of the field to get Alexis' cross and slip it past Milan's keeper.
Barcelona fans will never forget this match. Barça and Messi haters should remember this game many months from now, when time comes to count ballots for the 2013 FIFA Ballon d'Or trophy. The greatest footballer of our time, or any time, is already way ahead in the race, poised to win it for the 5th straight year.
FC Barcelona becomes the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the sixth straight year. Guess which team would any of the other seven qualifiers like to avoid in Friday's draw? By the time the quarters are played (April 2-3 and 9-10), Barça coach Tito Vilanova is expected to be back on the bench after completing cancer treatment in New York.
Som un equip (we're a team), colorfully wrote in Catalan the Camp Nou spectators before the Milan game. What every Barça fan also secretly thinks is, of course, "Habemus Messi," football's little pope on his way to sainthood.
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.