The two European giants have faced each other yet again in the Champions League and Dani Alves went so far as to say Milan were like family now. Whilst past meetings have seen the Italians always impress in containing the Catalan pressure at home, in the Camp Nou they have rarely managed to dazzle.
On Wednesday evening’s occasion, whilst you felt the Catalans’ superiority, there was a feeling that Milan were hard done by, as Neymar was awarded a soft penalty and the second goal came from an offside position. However, whilst controversies, dramas and possession stats are necessary to fill the pages, there was only one topic and one man everyone wanted to discuss – Lionel Messi.
The world’s best player had suffered a torrid time of late and tabloids have gone so far as to label it a crisis. Having not scored in four games, there was a feeling that injuries, Tata Martino’s tactics and the player’s psychological state were affecting his performances on the pitch.
For years Barcelona were thought of as the patient horizontal team that benefited from the explosive nature of one the few players able to offer a vertical edge – Messi. For the side that passed endlessly, the Argentine offered them penetration and allowed them the opportunity to convert domination into a positive result.
With a more direct approach to the game under Martino, players like Alexis Sanchez have greatly benefited whilst it has looked like Messi has been less explosive, less dazzling, less heroic. With several injuries suffered, there was also a worry that the constant interruptions to his playing time had hindered his impact on the game. Psychologically, health preoccupation was seen as the reason behind the dip in confidence.
Against Milan, Messi exposed the weaknesses in those arguments. Whilst Barcelona as a team suffered in certain moments of the game, especially after the introduction of Mario Balotelli who impressed with his physical strength and ability to overcome defenders, Barca’s No 10 was largely the reason his side succeeded in achieving maximum points.
Deployed in clear lines, Milan were compact, tight and offered their opponent no space to utilise and exploit. Their strategy revolved around suffocating the home side and disturbing their rhythm to avoid conceding a goal. They cared little for possession and allowed the Catalans to dominate the ball.
Whilst Messi looked to Xavi Hernandez in the first half in an attempt to overcome the Rossoneri’s tight lines, his quick exchanges with the likes of Neymar in the second half proved delectable. Consistently looking for openings to score, Messi was not only able to make the difference in attack but contributed to his side’s defensive game too.
It took a wonderful bursting run into the box and excellent combination play with Cesc Fabregas for Messi to score Barca’s third and secure the points for the Catalan team.
Marca argued that the player never disappeared whilst the likes of ‘20 Minutos’ insisted the Argentine’s impact was ‘relatively scarce’. It’s difficult to argue with two goals especially not when the player is still recovering. His attempts to disguise his discomfort did not go unnoticed but if he can still resolve games despite his problems, does anyone really have a right to question his performances?