Barca in the last month or so have been buffeted by the news of their impending demise. Even to Sid Lowe, the keen observer of everything Liga, these were anxious signs of an indomitable era coming to an end. Leo Messi was in a fugue, a man in search of an oasis, a muse, a Red Bull infusion. Madrid was administering a death from a thousand cuts as Milan, their CL understudy was playing the perfect spoiler.
The Madrid press was carousing, their Catalan counterparts were talking off a shift of power, the media elsewhere was talking of death throes, and back in Argentina, everyone was offering a theory for Messi's disappearing act.
The truths still are: Barca is as dominant as ever. Real Madrid will always have to break the bank to keep up. Cristiano Ronado is the perfect athlete. Leo Messi is a f**king footballing genius.
Today's Nou Camp encounter saw an brilliant Leo Messi, an imperious Iniesta, and a relentless Xavi push and probe to spring new orifices in Milan's demeanour. Command and control, baby, with a death rattle at the end. Hit the reset button. Get your neuralizers out. They're back with leather chaps on and cat o'nine tails.
Messi got the show at home started with two imperceptible shifts of position. I remember Vivian Richards, the West Indian legend, blasting sixes all over the stadium with the barest twitch of a muscle, a figment of the imagination. The ball rocketed forward with tremendous velocity generated with the briefest of backlifts as Abbiati did not move a muscle. Xavi the provider. Sometimes seeing is not believing.
Five minutes before half time, Messi again as Iniesta dispossesses Ambrosini and slides a pass to the Argentinian who shifts the ball to his left, holds for a nano second, and lashes a low drive between Phillipe Mexes's legs and past the hapless Abbiati. The aggregate was all square. Milan had a golden chance before the second goal to make Barca break out in a light sweat as Javier Mascherano, playing like a rejiggered centre half, comically headed a long ball straight to M'baye Niang, who powered forward and with Valdes beaten, contrived to strike it straight at the far post.
The second half saw Barca establish a complete chokehold once again and this time David Villa, the forgotten man in the side, scored what was the winning goal as Milan were robbed again close to the box with Mascherano relaying the ball to Iniesta and thereon to Xavi. The no 4 connects with Villa on his right as Constant commits early and the striker finishes perfectly with an angled shot to the far post. The 2-3 aggregate now in favour strangely produced Barca's most vulnerable moments as Milan realizing they could still go ahead on the away goal rule pressed harder.
Barca would go into panic stations every time Milan went forward with Ignazio Abate active in exploiting the lack of composure with his runs down the right flank. Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol (coming in for Mascherano) regularly lost sight of the other and their offside enforcement became hit and miss. Milan's best chance came when former Barca man Bojan dummied Pique to slide his pass to Robinho and only a last ditch block by Jordi Alba saved that goal. The left back built on his heroics minutes later, providing the Cam Nou with the longest sigh of relief with his 90th minute goal, resulting from a misplaced Milan free kick which Messi finally captured and sprang Alexis Sanchez forward. Alba running parallel to the Chilean and on his left was at hand to sweep in his cross perfectly.
As scintillating as the attack was, there is no question that this back line needs replenishing. Dani Alves has been the subject of many transfer rumours and today's performance showed why as his trademark crossing skills let down Barca in scoring positions. Mascherano is not a centre half and Pique is not the force he was. Neither is Puyol, who reminds one of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, forcing his beaten, aging body into one more final throwdown. Victor Valdes has not renewed his contract and he will be on the move next season.
Milan had its chances and till the 90th minute were right in it. But they also had a number of notable absentees. Stephan Al Shaarawy was a subdued presence down the left and the one clear chance was a tame effort with Valdes having no problems. A clearly frustrated Kevin Prince Boateng was booked for a series of rash challenges. Ambrosini was often befuddled by the swarming Barca midfield which would capture the ball right back as Iniesta did punishing the veteran.