Barça comfortably reached the last 16 of the 2013/14 Champions League after a 3-1 win over AC Milan at Camp Nou tonight. Leo Messi ended his four-match goal drought, blasting Barça in front from the penalty spot after half an hour and ten minutes later Sergio Busquets headed Barça further in front from Xavi’s free kick. Milan cut the deficit just before half time when Gerard Piqué put through his own goal but Messi added his second of the night after a good combination with Cesc Fabregas ten minutes from the end to wrap things up for Barça.
The debate this week has centred on Barça’s style of play and tonight’s game will have done little to settle the argument. Tata Martino began the season using plenty of rotations but in recent games we have seen him leaning towards an once de gala. With Adriano and Piqué declared fit, Martino again put out his best eleven, except for the injured Jordi Alba, which meant both Pedro Rodriguez and Csec Fabregas again started on the bench. Barça gave a dominant performance and deserved the victory but there was still a lack of spark in the final third of the field.
Milan set out in a defensive 4-4-2. Balotelli was sacrificed to the bench which meant that Robinho and Kaká led the attack for the visitors while Andrea Poli was brought in to bolster the midfield. The Italians didn’t exactly sit back and wait and they pushed up when they could, however, they tried to leave little space between the midfield and defensive lines to make things difficult for Barça, and it was not unusual in the first half to see the entire Milan team back in their own half.
Despite the defensive approach from Milan, Barça started the game well. In the first few minutes Xavi sent a free kick wide, then after a quick one-two with Xavi, Messi burst towards the area and was only denied by Abate putting the ball out for a corner. Barça took the corner short with the ball coming inside to Busquets whose shot was deflected for another corner. Then soon after, in the 6th minute, Messi sent an excellent ball in for Neymar but the Brazilian’s control let him down.
There were good sensations from Barça. In the 11th minute Neymar tried a curler from the left but sent the ball well wide of the far post, then three minutes later Xavi stabbed a superb quick pass into Alexis but the ball got caught between the Chilean’s feet and Mexes had time to intervene. Alves tried his luck but missed the target from 25 yards, then Iniesta got a second attempt to thread a pass through to Adriano but the left back’s dangerous cross was missed by Messi, and Alexis couldn’t get enough of a touch to steer the ball in. From the resulting goal-kick Abbiati played it short to Mexes who passed back to the goalkeeper, giving Alexis the chance to charge at the keeper but despite getting in the way of Abbiati’s attempted clearance Alexis could only deflect the ball out for another goal kick.
Milan didn’t manage a shot until the 35th minute when Poli pulled the ball back from the right but Montolivo sent his effort wide from 25 yards. However, as the Italians adopted a more attacking approach Barça began to find more chances to penetrate. Messi sent Alexis away with a delightful scoop pass but the Chilean’s cross clipped a defender and Abbiati was able to dive and gather. Then it was Iniesta who found the pass into the area for Messi who did well to resist Zapata’s challenge but as Abbiati came charging out of his goal Messi could only chip the ball across the goal and Mexes headed clear. Barça’s pressure paid off a minute later when Xavi sent in a free kick from the left and with the Milan defence looking for an offside Busquets was left free to stoop and head home Barça’s second.
Barça should have been home and dry at this point. Adriano might have made it 3-0 with a thirty yard drive but Abbiati palmed the ball over the bar. Then just before half-time Kaká for once escaped from Alves on the left, and just before Alves could recover Kaká sent in a low cross which clipped off Piqué’s right foot, leaving Valdés with no chance at his near post.
Milan were encouraged for the second half and Max Allegri replaced Robinho with Mario Balotelli. The controversial forward was soon in action, shaking off Mascherano’s challenge before going past Adriano to send in a low hard cross that Valdés did well to hold. Barça seemed divided between pushing for another goal and playing a more conservative approach. There was little threat on Abbiati’s goal as Barça were twice frustrated by the linesman. First, Messi was caught offside as Adriano’s shot hit him and then looped in for a disallowed goal. Then Neymar looked in line with the last defender as Xavi sent a fine pass through but the official raised his flag. Barça didn’t test Abbiati in the second half until the 59th minute, after a short corner Messi played the ball back for Iniesta who had to nudge the referee out of the way in order to shoot, Abbiati dived quickly to his left to save.
Milan continued to edge forward and Barça converted more and more to looking for the quick counter-attack. Mascherano needed to make a last-ditch tackle to thwart Balotelli, then a minute later the powerful Italian forward again got past Adriano and Mascherano to send a cross to the near post where Kaká, under pressure from Piqué, sent his shot narrowly wide. Two minutes later, as the visitors had their best spell of the game, Mascherano had to turn Emanuelson’s dangerous cross out for a corner.
However, Barça began to find chances again at the other end with Adriano shooting over from 25 yards. Neymar then went on the most incredible run, cutting inside from the left and going past Abate, Poli, Zapata and Mexes before missing his chance for a goal-of-the-season candidate by blazing well wide from close to the penalty spot.
Birsa replaced Poli with just over fifteen minutes remaining as Allegri looked for an equalizer but as Milan came forward Barça looked increasingly dangerous on the counter. There was one marvellous combination between Messi and Neymar which ended with the Argentinian slipping the ball right for Alexis, but tonight the Chilean was not as his most fortunate and Abbiati denied him with an excellent save.
Martino delayed any substitutions until the 78th minute when he decided to rest Iniesta and give a Fabregas a short run-out. Soon after, Milan had their final chance for an equalizer but Alves managed to cut out Montolivo’s pass towards the unmarked Muntari. Then in the 83rd minute Fabregas showed his worth playing a brilliant return to Messi who avoided Mexes’s lunge and outsprinted De Jong before keeping his cool to lift the ball over the advancing Abbiati and seal the win for Barça.
Messi might have had a hat-trick after another Fabregas pass sent him into the area but Mexes made a fine saving tackle. There were late substitutions with Pedro and Song replacing Neymar and Xavi but there was little time for them to do much. Milan had already run out of steam after the third goal and there was no more threat on Valdés’s goal. The three points leave Barça on 10 pts from four games in Group H, Milan remain second on five pts, Ajax are now third on four pts after beating Celtic 1-0 which leaves the Scottish side bottom of the group on three pts. One more point from the last two games will now guarantee top spot for Barça.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7, Mascherano 6.5, Adriano 6.5; Xavi 7.5 (Song m88, –), Busquets 8, Iniesta 7 (Fabregas m78, 7.5); Alexis 6, Messi 7, Neymar 7 (Pedro m85, –).
Milan; Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Emanuelson; Poli (Birsa m74), Montolivo, De Jong, Muntari; Kaká (Matri m84); Robinho (Balotelli h/t).
Goals: m30 Messi (pen) 1-0, m39 Busquets 2-0, m45 Piqué (o.g.) 2-1, m83 Messi 3-1.
Yellow cards: m29 Abate, m32 Muntari, m56 De Jong, m62 Alexis.
Champions League football returns to Camp Nou tomorrow as Barça take on AC Milan in the battle for first place in Group H (Wednesday 8.45 pm). Tata Martino’s men go into the match in a strong position, knowing that a victory will mean qualification to the last 16 while almost guaranteeing top spot and even a draw would still leave Barça in pole position to win the group.
Barça are clear favourites to win the game and with Milan going through a crisis of form, few give the Italians much hope at Camp Nou. Since the two teams drew 1-1 at the San Siro two weeks ago, Max Allegri’s men have managed just one point in Serie A from a home draw with Lazio while they lost 3-2 at Parma and 0-2 at home to Fiorentina on Saturday. The seven-times champions of Europe have taken just 12 points from 11 games in the Italian league which leaves them a massive 19 points behind leaders Roma.
Despite the statistics Milan should never be underestimated. They will be boosted by the probable return in goal of the veteran Christian Abbiati, while ageing stars such as Kaká and Robinho demonstrated in the first leg that when the stage is right they are still players to be reckoned with. Mario Balotelli is another who seems to perform better in big games and after returning from injury as a substitute in the first leg he will be fit to start at Camp Nou. Balotelli’s form has been disappointing this season and he has picked up more yellow cards (five) than goals (three); however, despite his inconsistency, Super Mario has demonstrated enough times in the past that he has the strength and ability to trouble any defence.
Barça have doubts over the fitness of Piqué and Adriano. The two defenders underwent specific programs yesterday rather than training with the group though the local press seems optimistic that both players will be ready to play though they may both begin on the bench. The squad will train again this evening before Tata Martino decides on his list for the game.
With Jordi Alba still out injured, the problems of Piqué and Adriano only go to emphasise the apparent fragility of our defenders. Puyol and Mascherano have also both missed games through injury and it seems as if it is always our back line that suffers these problems which might indicate that we really should have signed another defender in the summer. However, a look at our recent record shows we have only conceded four goals in the last eleven games which demonstrates the effectiveness of Martino’s methods. It’s a slightly strange sensation as neither Piqué nor Mascherano, considered the first-choice centre-backs, is in his best moment, though acknowledgement must go to Victor Valdés who has begun the season in excellent form while Dani Alves deserves credit for improved performances defensively.
Johnathan dos Santos underwent surgery on the cruciate ligaments of his right knee today following his injury last week in training. The operation was successful but Dos Santos now faces a six-month recovery period which makes it unlikely he will play again this season. Let’s hope the team can put on a good show tomorrow and dedicate a victory to the youngster.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Montoya; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Milan: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, Constant; De Jong, Montolivo, Muntari; Robinho, Balotelli, Kaká.
Prediction: Barça 2 Milan 0
Date: Wednesday 6 November 2013. Kick off 8.45 pm local time.
Tata Martino picked the same team that started in Milan last week with the exception of Martin Montoya at left back in place of Adriano, which may signal he is settling on his idea of Barça’s best XI. Espanyol coach Javier Aguirre surprised, however, by leaving out Simao, Stuani, Pizzi and Mattioni while giving a chance to the out-of-favour Thievy and Gabriel Torje.
It was the Frenchman Thievy who had the first shot of the game which was blocked by Montoya in the second minute then soon after Torje shot wide from 25 yards. Barça’s first chance came after an early switch of wings from Neymar and Alexis. Neymar played the ball infield from the right to Messi and after a touch from Iniesta the ball came to Alexis on the left but Espanyol’s keeper Kiko Casilla dived quickly to his left to save the Chilean’s effort.
Most of the early danger came from Neymar who began the game well. He was unlucky to get called offside after Xavi’s through-ball though Casilla was quickly out of his area to clear just in case. However, as Barça took control of the ball Espanyol worked hard to close space with Thievy and Torje dropping back to support a narrow midfield line of five which shielded the back four and forced Barça to play the ball wide. The result was lots of crosses from Alves and a couple from Montoya from the left, but neither Barça full-back found much accuracy. Xavi’s corners were equally disappointing with the Espanyol defence winning all the headers.
Espanyol continued to frustrate and it wasn’t until the 28th minute that Barça created another chance. Iniesta played a cross-field pass for Alves’s forward run and the Brazilian headed the ball nicely for Alexis who volleyed his shot off target against Fuentes. Espanyol hit back on the counter, first Torje had time to shoot but Valdés got behind the ball well, then in the 35th minute Alves failed to cut out Thievy’s pass, allowing Victor Sanchez the chance to put the visitors ahead but Valdés did brilliantly to save with his feet.
After the scare Barça ended the first half well. Xavi fired narrowly over from 25 yards after Neymar worked some space. Then from a corner in the 43rd minute the ball was only cleared as far as Iniesta who smashed a shot through a forest of bodies but Casilla followed the ball well to punch the ball away, the ball came 35 yards out to Alves who, after a quick one-two with Busquets, cracked in a low shot that bounced out off Casilla’s right-hand post. It was a good end from Barça to a disappointing first-half though Espanyol will have been encouraged by arriving to the break with the score goalless.
|Alexis goal celebration|
barça 1-0 espanyol neymar and casilla 2013Espanyol changed shape and tried to push forward in search of an equalizer but Barça began to exploit the spaces left. Alexis supplied a great ball through for Neymar and Casilla was fortunate not to be seen pulling the Brazilian’s arm as he would surely have been sent off for preventing a probable goal. There had to be one more chance for the visitors and it came in the 79th minute when Sergio Garcia got the wrong side of Montoya but then blazed his shot just over the bar. Besides that there were hopeful efforts from Espanyol’s substitutes Lanzarote with a header wide and Cordoba with a shot blocked by Piqué but Valdés was not troubled again. Barça’s subs Fabregas and Pedro combined for the best late chance for Barça but Casilla did well to stop Pedro’s shot with his foot.
Espanyol’s disciplined defensive lines made things difficult for Barça tonight but perhaps we should also take the heavy fixture list into account. Tonight’s game was the fifth in 14 days and the third in the last 7 but since the draws with Osasuna and Milan we now have three straight wins over Madrid, Celta and Espanyol. We have extended our consecutive home wins record in the league to 20 games, stretching back to October 2012 and the 2-2 draw with Madrid, and we are still unbeaten after 17 games with Tata in charge. All in all we can be pretty satisfied. What the heck! Even Alexis is coming good. That’s seven goals now in the league from the Chilean and after the injury-time winner over Sevilla, the brilliant chip against Madrid and tonight’s only goal, he’s getting a handy knack of popping up with vital strikes which we can only hope continues.
Barça: Valdes 7; Alves 6, Piqué 7, Mascherano 6.5, Montoya 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6, Iniesta 6.5 (Fabregas m86, 6.5); Alexis 6.5 (Pedro m83, 6), Messi 6.5, Neymar 7.
Espanyol: Kiko Casilla; Raúl Rodriguez, Sidnei, Hector Moreno, Fuentes; David López, Abraham (Lanzarote m83), Víctor Sánchez; Thievy (Cordoba m62), Sergio García, Torje.
Goals: m68 Alexis 1-0.
Yellow cards: m45 Fuentes, m67 Victor Sanchez, m77 Mascherano, m90 Lanzarote.