Lionel Messi leads way as Barcelona pull off great escape against AC Milan
Barcelona 4 AC Milan 0
Of all the statements of their footballing greatness, and that of the unreal Lionel Messi, perhaps this was Barcelona's most emphatic in the modern era.
The night they delivered one of the great European comebacks to dispose of AC Milan and silence their naysayers felt as if it would go down in fable, such was the delirium at the Nou Camp.
No side had ever prevailed after being 2-0 down following the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie but Barcelona rediscovered all their old trigonometric elan to hypnotise and then slice through Milan.
What a night for the 96,000 Barcelona faithful. They had been scolded by Gerard Pique to make thunderous noise or stay at home and they responded as two goals from the wondrous Messi, another from the forgotten Nou Camp force David Villa and a fourth, fittingly from rampaging full-back Jordi Alba, saw them avoid the indignity of being bundled out of the competition before the semi-final stage for the first time in six years.
This was Barca at their matchless finest and a wonderful tonic for both manager Tito Vilanova, as he battles cancer in a New York clinic, and his stand-in Jordi Roura.
The faithful poured into the old cathedral, unfurling cards to spell out the message in Catalan 'Som Un Equip!' – 'We are a team!'
A team, though, with one added dimension. For at the heart of those most sublime of knockout stage demonstrations, there was one common factor at work: the true flowering of Messi's genius.
Yet in the first-leg defeat at the San Siro, the world's finest had looked more anonymous and lifeless than anyone could recall.
With Xavi back after his hamstring injury and Vilanova, choosing the team from New York, having also put his faith in Villa to find his scoring touch after netting just two goals since the start of November, what was really needed was for the little Argentinian to deliver his Champions League best.
How he delivered. Within five minutes, Messi and Xavi somehow managed from Sergio Basquets' rifled diagonal pass to contrive an extraordinary one-two on the edge of the 'D' which ended with Messi curling the ball into the top corner.
It was astounding. It felt almost impossible. Messi had been surrounded by six white shirts, yet still the great conductor Xavi managed to instantly feed the predator, who took one touch then buried his 52nd goal of the season.
The roar would have shaken the towers of the Sagrada Familia. This was the signal for the old Barcelona to re-emerge, swaggering in attack, devilish in attempting to recover the ball when they lost it – and Messi at the heart of everything.
Milan seemed utterly fazed. Concentration levels dipped and the ball was several times given away under pressure as Xavi's demand for more pace, width and direct intent in Barcelona's attacks was thrillingly realised.
They should have been awarded a penalty after Ignazio Abate fouled Pedro, but no matter.
It seemed only a matter of time before Barca scored again as Andres Iniesta smashed a sweet half-volley which Christian Abbiati dazzlingly touched on to the bar and Xavi fired just wide.
Milan did well to escape the deluge as young Stephan El Shaarawy provided an outlet on the break, and he should have done better with one spectacular aerial air shot which caused great glee among the home fans.
As the half wore on, Milan threatened more often and Barca's capacity for self-destruction at the back – they had let in at least one goal in all but one of their last 14 matches – reared its head again as Javier Mascherano failed to deal with a long punt and headed only into the path of M'Baye Niang, who, racing through with just Victor Valdes to beat, shot against a post.
Was that the sort of luck which had deserted Barcelona here against Chelsea last year? Certainly, fate seemed to be at work as the home side, courtesy of Massimo Ambrosini attempting to beat Iniesta in his own half, sped down the other end and scored.
The gift to Iniesta was followed by his own present to Messi, another perfect pass which enabled the Argentinian to fire between Philippe Mexes' flailing legs.
There was no let-up after the break either. As Milan tried helplessly to break the shackles, Mascherano made a magnificent interception in midfield, found Xavi and the maestro's delicious diagonal pass was perfectly weighted for Villa to curl home a left-foot finish.
Milan had, by now, nothing to hope for but desperately throw bodies forward and, at times, they had success, twice forcing last-ditch tackles from Alba and Pique, but on a night like this, it only felt right that Barca should have the final word as they swept forward on the counter, with Alba storming from the back to apply the finishing touch to one of the great nights in a great club's history. (© Daily Telegraph, London)