Barcelona restores reputation with Milan comeback
BARCELONA, Spain (AP)
With a dominant, historic performance, Barcelona restored its reputation as the world's best football team and washed away memories of the club's recent struggles.
Barcelona's 4-0 mauling of AC Milan on Tuesday night not only advanced the Catalan club to the Champions League quarterfinals and kept alive their bid for a fourth title in eight seasons, it helped regain the confidence that dissipated with the illness of coach Tito Vilanova, a first-leg defeat in Milan last month and consecutive losses to Spanish rival Real Madrid.
''Beyond the result and moving on to the next round, we have returned to our origins and that is what we must feel most satisfied about,'' Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano said Wednesday. ''The fact that we strung together some bad games undermined our confidence and our way of playing. On Tuesday, our fans went home knowing that they had seen their team again.''
While Barcelona has a 13-point lead in the Spanish league with 11 games left, it was eliminated in the Copa del Rey by Real Madrid with a 3-1 defeat at Camp Nou on Feb. 26. Then it lost 2-1 at Madrid in a league match four days later. Combine the 2-0 first-leg loss at Milan on Feb. 20 and the absence of Vilanova since mid-January while he was treated in New York for a saliva gland tumor, and Barcelona fans were beginning to doubt.
Even Barcelona defender Dani Alves had said Monday that Lionel Messi appeared ''down'' to him. Alves said the team had lost the ''hunger'' required to carry out its high-intensity pressing on defense.
Not exactly what the players and their fans had become accustomed to under Pep Guardiola, who led the team to 14 of a possible 19 titles from 2008 under stepping down last summer.
''What we have done over the past five years is crazy,'' Mascherano said. ''This team is still competitive. That is what we have to take away from this.''
No team had ever advanced in the Champions League after losing the first leg 2-0 on the road. But the comeback never really looked in doubt on Tuesday.
Before Milan was able to make two consecutive passes, Messi had linked up with Xavi Hernandez in a whirlwind move of one-touch passes right in the heart of the Milan defense before bending a left-footed strike into the net in the fifth minute.
Messi added a second in the 40th with another screaming shot after Andres Iniesta had stolen the ball and fed him on the edge of the box.
With the two-leg series even, Barcelona kept pouring on the pressure and David Villa scored the deciding goal in the 55th. Defender Jordi Alba capped the rout in stoppage time for a 4-2 aggregate win.
''We came out flying from the very beginning, We looked for our first goal from the starting whistle. We believed we could turn the tie around, and with that attitude a lot can be accomplished,'' Villa said. ''We're very pleased for the fans. They have always believed in us and they haven't criticized us along the way.''
In a little less than two hours, Barcelona's self-esteem has been restored.
''We will remember this for years,'' Barcelona director of football Andoni Zubizarreta said.
Milan, an eight-time winner of Europe's top club competition, was overwhelmed.
''Barcelona is the best team in the world,'' Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said after his team's first four-goal loss since 2010. ''Barcelona's pressure in the first half was lethal. They played a beautiful and fast-paced brand of football. They deserved to go through after playing the perfect game. Just because they had lost two or three matches doesn't mean they had lost their potential.''
Elimination this early from the Champions League would have no doubt provoked a crisis at the club, which is under constant pressure by its demanding supporters not only to always compete for every title, but to do so with flair and finesse.
A good amount of grumbling had already started regarding the club's handling of its coaching situation. The team's drop in form coincided with the departure of Vilanova to New York in January to treat a second throat tumor in two years. The club left the squad in the hands of assistant Jordi Roura, and while it has continued to brush aside lesser opponents, it has flopped in the marquee matches.
While Messi captured most of the accolades, the big winner on Tuesday may have been Roura. He desperately needed an important victory to bolster his authority, which was under heavy fire and mounting suspicions that the players were left to manage themselves in Vilanova's absence.
Both his changes to the starting 11 that lost in Milan- Villa and Mascherano- were key to getting the crucial third goal with Mascherano robbing the ball and Villa finishing with an exquisite curling strike.
''These days have been difficult,'' Roura said Tuesday. ''My players received undeserved criticism, but they went out and got a good result and proved that they are made of something special.
''One is always surprised by these players, who having won so much, still take a loss so much to heart.''