For all their brilliance and dominance. For all their trophies and triumphs. For all the records they have broken. All the times they have made us gasp in breathlessness, stand in awe, stare in amazement and applaud in appreciation; one thing remained. That for this generation of Barcelona players, a truly outstanding comeback was missing from the narrative.
All the recent doubts, the voiced criticisms were quickly dismissed and silenced. Remontada – the comeback, was achieved in the most exacting of circumstances.
Just three weeks ago, Barca lost 2-0 at the San Siro in the first leg of a Champions League Round of 16 tie. AC Milan had completed a tactically perfect victory; Barca had looked devoid of confidence. Confidence that would be dented even further by the back to back losses to Real Madrid. All of a sudden, the talk was that Barca was a spent force. That Lionel Messi, had reached his end.
Certainly not. Not when they could return to the Barca of old. Classic Barca, in a way, Pep’s Barca. The MVP frontline – Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez. A midfield trio with Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets – Cesc Fabregas relegated to the bench. Even Javier Mascherano at center back resurfaced. Despite all the changes that have occured, this, with the exclusion of Jordi Alba, it was the same side that had so rapturously defeated Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final.
But not only was the same team back; so too was the dynamic. Such was the passing, such was the pressing. To be fair, Barca has not pressed this energetically in the Tito Vilanova/Jordi Roura era. Here it seemed, they were back to those Pep Guardiola days; where pressing was animalistic.
Milan could not live with it. Neither could they with Messi. The player most praised for Barca’s rise was also the one being criticised for its blip. On this night, he re-emerged. With every run, every pass, every shimmy, every dummy. Every swing of the hips to leave Milan defenders in his wake, Messi was unstoppable. His two goals were taken with the most clinical of executions. The first left Christian Abbiati wondering what was going on; the second pierced through and got the Catalans believing.
If ever there was need for evidence of the little Argentine’s brilliance, this was it. Not only was his impact measurable by the amount of goals he scored (and with that, bypassing Ruud Van Nistelrooy as the Champions League second highest scorer in history) his was also an unquantifiable impact brought on by his presence and intelligence. In a way, this was the sort of performance that puts him up there with Pele and Diego Maradona, and just ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, the best of his generation.
Messi’s greatness, ultimately, transcends the numbers.
But apart from that, the third Barca goal was clearly the most decisive. It was the one most coveted, and to none was it more befitting than David Villa. The Asturian whose recovery from a broken leg has clearly hampered his Barca career, finished gloriously with that same left leg which kept him out for so long.
In doing so, he displayed just what the blaugrana has been missing. Especially in the most definitive moments of last season, it was the lack of a striker who could for nothing else but just stick the ball in the back of the net, that cost them. One can only remember the games against Chelsea and how they laboured to find goals. David Villa would in all probability have proved the difference had he been available.
For the team as a whole, it finally seemed as if the siege mentality created by the recent criticisms had galvanised them. With a point to prove, they did so in the most resounding of manners.
The call had been heard and heeded to. Not forgetting that their manager, Tito Vilanova, is receiving cancer treatment far away in the United States, there was the need to do this for him. Gerrard Pique had said that they would score three for Tito.
They did that and more.
For even when those high levels of pressing brought about a strain on their physical levels, they retained their surgical precision amidst the exhaustion. A drop in pace, a drop in possession as Milan dominated the last ten minutes. But in the dying minute, a bursting break was finished off by Alba, effectively killing off the tie.
Even though Barca got through, it is testament to the high level they have established that even when there was doubt, a more than realistic glimmer of hope still existed. That while they gave themselves a mountain to climb, they reminded all just why they have for the last five years been atop those mountains.
The result is that for a team accused of dipping in form, the reality is that the double still looms. Through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, they are also 13 points clear of the chasing pack in La Liga. Certainly, a team that attains this while in poor form is definitely of the highest status.
The message is clear. The blip is now over.
By winning 4-0 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate, Barca became the first club ever to overturn a 2-0 first leg deficit in the Champions League. Before dazzling the crowd at the Camp Nou, they had walked out to the dazzling mosaic that had read “Som Un Equip!” – ‘We are One Team.’
This Barcelona truly is one team. But not just any team. Probably, the greatest club team ever! On this night, they faced their accusors and shattered any doubt. For a team that has set the highest standards, it is those standards to which they escalated, and for the time being, still remain.