Playing its worst game in five years on a night it was supposed to shine on club soccer's grandest scene, FC Barcelona lost to AC Milan 2-0 at the San Siro and seriously compromised its chances to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. The Catalans must win the second leg 3-0 or by any three-goal difference on March 12 at the Camp Nou, or will make an unexpected early exit from the competition that was their second (or first?) most important goal of the season. It is not impossible, just very improbable. Most likely, it won't happen. Good Italian teams are not known to lose important games by three goals.
The three-month season (March-May) of big-time football is about to start and Barça, the world's darling, is suddenly running on empty. No gas in the tank, no inspiration, no ambition. No real scoring opportunity and just a couple of shots on goal the entire game. Possession of the ball is a meaningless statistic if it does not result in dangerous attacks. Barça's stereotypical passing far from Milan's goal could not dislodge the Rossoneri's defense masterfully prepared by coach Massimiliano Allegri. Allegri gave the visitors the no-man's land at midfield, but closed the lines inside 25-30 yards, and made the penalty box truly impenetrable.
Barcelona was a heavy favorite against a Milan with an equally great pedigree, but which was supposed to be in transition. The club sold its two biggest stars, Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva, before the start of the season. The team struggled, Allegri almost got fired, but he rallied the young troops and Milan is bouncing back. After this game Allegri's name must be added to the list of great Italian coaches who have proved to be masterful tacticians. They know how to prepare an important game, and what makes the Italian coach look like a genius is that Italian players are probably the most disciplined in the world.
Allegri's plan was to limit Messi's ability to move, create and possibly breathe, by closely surrounding him with 2-3 defenders. Messi started well, but when he found out he couldn't get through the maze he became frustrated, made mistakes, then disappeared. He certainly doesn't like playing against Italian teams in CL. This was his 9th game, and he has yet to score from action.
With Messi annihilated, Barça's other two resident geniuses, Iniesta and Xavi, couldn't solve the puzzle. Xavi, coming back from injury, seems to have lost a step, and Iniesta couldn't handle the bad pitch and Milan's physical play. It seems that both Iniesta and Xavi, along with Fabregas and Pedro, play more freely on Spain's national team. Everything at Barça goes through Messi, most often with wonderful results. But these great players seem subjugated by the idea that Messi, who's so dominant, must always get the ball, he must always get his goals, and this mental block affects their efficiency and perhaps invites them to complacency. But Messi is not Messiah, he can't save them always.
As poorly as Barcelona played, and as deserved as Milan's alegria is, let's not forget that this 2-0, almost insurmountable, was decided by the referee. Milan's first goal should have been disallowed as Zapata played the ball with the hand (above his head) before it bounced to Boateng for the score. At 0-0, with a half hour left, it's a different ball game, with a different result. Barça got jobbed, and this could be the difference. And history has no pity for the defeated.
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.