The comeback is possible. So said the front cover of the Catalan daily Sport before yesterday’s Champions League last-16 second leg. Eighteen times, no less, until it filled the page like lines demanded by a teacher from a naughty pupil. They succeeded in getting the message tweeted around the Barcelona nation.
A cartoon in the same newspaper showed a large sandwich comprised of AC Milan bricks. ‘It will be tough to eat,’ read the caption, ‘but we must recuperate the hunger that we’ve lost. But we must not lose our teeth. Eat them.’
The media rattled their sabres, the Barcelona players also. Gerard Pique, 25 years a card carrying Barca socio, including when he was at Manchester United, appealed to the emotions. “You have to have faith in this team,” he told fans as he bordered on the indignant. “People seem to have short memories, they don’t seem to realise that we can do this … and more.”
And the fan who stands outside the Camp Nou media entrance with different signs in English before each game, hoping to catch the eyes of photographers, believed. ‘Yes, We Can’ read his sign, ‘Road to Wembley’.
Lionel Messi said almost nothing. He’s seldom interesting when he does talk, seldom dull when he plays. Team-mates have come to interpret his moods, his different shades of silence according to his mannerisms and facial expressions. Xavi says he can read him and knows when to talk, when to leave him be. He said that he’d spoken to Messi at length and that he understood what was needed, that he felt it could be done.
Yet the odds were stacked against Barcelona. No team in Champions League history had salvaged a two-goal first-leg away defeat without the benefit of an away goal. Optimists said that if any team could do it then Barca were that team, pessimists said that a Barca team shorn of their poorly and absent coach Tito Vilanova, had been worked out by opponents.
Milan had proved that in the first leg, winning 2-0 and limiting the Catalans to a single shot on goal, and that from 25 yards. Stand-in coach Jordi Roura said a clean sheet was vital, but his side hadn’t managed that once in 13 matches until Saturday’s clean sheet against bottom of the table Deportivo La Coruna. More Barca fans thought they would be eliminated than go through.
The Catalans would need to do more than inflict death by a thousand passes in Camp Nou. They needed at least three goals, while always being at the risk of a devastating away goal. Milan had scored three times in two visits to Camp Nou last season, they were confident in their own abilities.
90,000 Barca fans held up placards spelling out the message: ‘We are a team’ in Catalan. Above them, the 5,000 travelling Milanese hoped. After four minutes, they were already behind. Messi, ineffective in the first leg, scored his 52nd goal of the season, firing a shot into the top corner without any backlift, despite being surrounded by Milan players.
The Italians had their moments and the huge crowd held their collective breath as M’Baye Niang hit the post when he should have scored, but Barcelona counter-attacked to make it 2-0. Messi, again. The tie was level and the Milan fans high in the gods may have looked to them for intervention.
Barca were not finished. David Villa, starting ahead of Cesc Fabregas because “he could draw central defenders away from other players and give us depth in attack,” according to Roura, grabbed the crucial third. The Asturian has had a frustrating season of injury and non-selection. He’s likely to leave in the summer. But he left the field a hero last night, hugged by Pedro and applauded by the fans he’d kept urging on.
And just as Barca were about to star in the greatest 0-2, 3-0 comeback since they played Manchester United in 1984, Jordi Alba got a fourth in injury time. The Remontada was complete, Barcelona were brilliant.
“This is a dream,” glowed Villa after the match. “All the suffering after my broken shinbone is forgotten now. We went for the game from the first minutes. We believed in it, and when you believe, you can do things like this.”
“People speculated that Messi was not in a good moment, they speculated,” added coach Roura. “But if anyone had any doubts about Leo, they only have to look at tonight. He gave another magisterial lesson in how to play football. He has shown once again that he is extraordinary and that on the big occasions, surrounded by great players, he can do amazing things.”
'What a night!’ screams the headline on Mundo Deportivo today.
The mood has changed, the carping melting away after the stunning performance. Some Barca fans thought they were watching their team come apart without its boss. Now they think they can win a league and European Cup double. Vilanova is expected to return from New York by the end of the month, in time for Barca’s sixth successive quarter-final.
February is seldom a month Barcelona have been able to master, Milan were a team they could. Few thought it was possible, but Barcelona have reached the sunlit uplands. They’ve won this battle and they think they can win the war … and a fifth European Cup.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.