Tata Martino’s Barcelona sealed their progress through to the Champions League knockout stages after a deserved 3-1 win at home to a disappointing AC Milan side. Lionel Messi (2) and Sergio Busquets converted some of Barca’s many chances to cancel out a Gerard Pique own goal, leaving Barca five points clear at the top of Group H, with Milan’s progression still in the balance as they sit a point ahead of Ajax and two ahead of Celtic with both teams still waiting to play the Rossoneri.
As usual, Barca dominated the possession and the chances from the first minute, and could have been a goal or two up within the first five minutes. Xavi bent a free kick wide of the post from long range, and Messi and Busquets were both denied by last-ditch challenges from a reasonably solid-looking Milan defence. Neymar also had a sniff early on, but his and Iniesta’s fancy feet was not enough to break into a penalty area surrounded by the white shirts of Milan.
The visitors were not without chances of their own, threatening on the counter attack. Kaka nearly bundled through the home defense with only a heavy last touch knocking the ball through to Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who hoofed the ball clear. There was a similar story at the other end soon after, with Messi playing a through ball to Neymar, who had to stretch and his touch took it straight through to Christian Abbiati. Barca continued to press without really creating any gilt-edged opportunities, but Milan were lucky to escape with their clean sheet after the typically hard-working Alexis Sanchez ran in behind, only to touch the ball out for a goal kick.
With 2o minutes played, Milan mustered their second real attack of the match, with a clever interchange between Muntari and Emanuelson at the corner of the box playing the Dutchman in behind. But his powerful half-volleyed cross was always sailing over the head of Kaka, who was in space by the penalty spot. From the resulting goal kick, Sanchez somehow found himself 10 yards offside – and somehow still managed to complain about the decision. That said, Barca were piling on the pressure with an Iniesta cross along the line of the six yard box somehow evading both Messi and Sanchez, where a touch would have guaranteed a goal.
Milan also seemed to have picked up an ominous habit of passing the ball around the back when it wasn’t really safe to do so, and Sanchez nearly made them pay as Abbiati kicked Philippe Mexes’ lazy pass straight onto the Chilean forward’s head and into the side netting. Just before the thirty-minute mark, Barca finally made the pressure play. The otherwise tidy Neymar went down easily under minimal contact from Ignazio Abate following a delicate Iniesta ball over the top, and with the best player in the world taking the penalty there was only ever one outcome. Messi furrowed his brow, took a small breath, and stepped forward to do what he does best – hitting it hard and low down the center to make it 1-0 for Barca.
Milan continued to play their dangerous passing game around the back and Sanchez came close to punishing them again, but the goal served to encourage the Italians forward. Riccardo Montolivo put their best chance wide, hitting a first time shot from just inside the box curling just past the far post. He was made to rue the miss five minutes later as the home side doubled their lead in a most un-Barca-like fashion. A fairly simple free kick was whipped in from the left and Busquets headed it in, with the Milan defense seemingly not reacting to the danger. There was a slight suspicion of offside, but the second goal was no more than the Blaugrana deserved.
Milan manager Massimo Allegri was understandably exasperated by the manner of the goal, and he is unlikely to be in a job for much longer with the historic San Siro team languishing in 11th in Serie A with a paltry 12 points from 11 games. Seconds before half time, though, AC Milan somehow found themselves back in it. Kaka surged into the box from the left and hit a powerful low cross inside which was turned into his own net by the unfortunate Pique. Milan went in at the interval knowing that they could easily nick another goal in the second half, but the numbers didn’t make happy reading – the Italians had had 39% of the possession and mustered no goals on target to Barca’s six. With a goal needed and little to lose, Allegri introduced Mario Balotelli for the ineffectual Robinho.
Soon after the restart, Messi had the ball in the net again in a remarkable fashion. Sanchez hit a powerful effort low towards the goalkeeper, but the ball deflected off the Argentine’s trailing foot, looping over Abbiati and into the top corner – but the Barca fans’ celebrations were cut short as Messi had been half a yard offside. Abate was looking out of his depth despite being a full Italy international, and his physical approach was getting him dangerously close to a second yellow card.
Milan continued to press for a second and both Kaka and Montolivo found themselves crowded out on the edge of the area. Balotelli gave Milan an extra outlet as the target man their aimless long balls had been lacking, and it was his powerful run which nearly led to an equaliser. He took the ball past two Barca defenders simply with his pace and strength, before playing a perfectly-weighted ball across to Kaka who could only smash wide under pressure from Pique. The ex-Man City man’s hulking presence was clearly making the Barcelona defence uncomfortable, but he wasn’t playing with any real urgency despite the prestigious occasion.
Milan may have been looking more dangerous but so were Barca, and some good interplay between Messi and Neymar provided a worrying image of how good their partnership could be in a few months’ time. A better first touch on the chest and Messi would have been in, and Neymar seemed certain to score after cutting inside from the left and beating four men simply by running in a straight line, but he went for power and hit his shot wide. A great understanding between the two also played in Sanchez, who was denied by the solid Abbiati.
Some light relief was provided when Neymar found himself on his backside trying to control a lofted ball over the top with ten minutes to play, but it was no laughing matter for Milan as Barca put the game to bed in the 83rd minute. Messi played the ball to substitute Cesc Fabregas, who took it forward before sliding a delightful through ball back to the onrushing Messi, who provided an emphatic finish – he became the first player to score 5+ goals in seven consecutive Champions League seasons. Neymar was applauded off the pitch a few minutes later, but with the game killed off the intensity petered out in the final moments.
Allegri was understandably crestfallen after the game but was defensive of his team in the post-match press conference, saying, “I’m disappointed with the result, but the performance was not bad. In the first half we were unable to launch a counterattack when we had the chance to do so, mainly because we missed too many passes, but in the second half we played better. I’m sure we will be more balanced and will get better results when we recover important players like Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio from injury.” Milan have the perfect opportunity to bounce back at the weekend as they travel to bottom-spot Chievo on Sunday, while Barcelona will hope to keep up their scintillating league form away to 18th-placed Real Betis.