Messi, Barcelona find their zest, advance in Champions League
On Tuesday, Barcelona became the first team in Champions League history to overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit. This was the "remonatada," the comeback, that this team had never completed, had never needed to pull off, before. And just like that, we have a new favorite for the competition. A new, old, favorite. If there was any doubt it might happen -- and before the game there was plenty of it -- it lasted little more than four minutes. That was when Lionel Messi scored a goal of outstanding quality, taking Sergio Busquets' pass and before any of the three defenders lunging in could get close, firing a shot that flew into the top corner before goalkeeper Christian Abbiati even moved.
And yet it would have been different, so different, had M'Baye Niang not done better when he was through on goal in the 38th minute. The 18-year-old, Milan's second-youngest starter in a European tie, latched onto Javier Mascherano's mistake but could only drill his shot low against the post.
By then, Barcelona might already have been out of sight: Pedro had claimed a penalty after he was pushed by Ignazio Abate while Abbiati made two sensational stops, pushing Andres Iniesta's piledriver onto the post and Xavi's shot around the post.
But within a minute of Niang's miss, Barcelona scored again. Massimo Ambrosini lost out to Iniesta, fantastic all game, whose pass found Messi just outside the area: once again, before Philippe Mexes could even react, he fired in a left-foot howitzer to level the tie. He has now scored 53 goals in 42 games this season.
Barcelona still needed to win the second half to progress and within 10 minutes, it had scored again. This time it was Xavi whose slide-rule pass evaded Kevin Constant's outstretched leg, for David Villa, preferred to Cesc Fabregas, to curl a shot into the far corner. There was more to come: in injury time, Messi released Alexis Sanchez, whose early ball found Jordi Alba, who made no mistake from 10 yards out.
How good was this Barcelona performance? Certainly as good as it has been all season, equaling the level of its 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in December, but maybe one notch down from its two era-defining wins over Real Madrid (6-2 in May 2009 and 5-0 in November 2010) and the 2011 Champions League final win over Manchester United.
And yet: does this result mean Barcelona will now cakewalk its way to the Wembley final in May? Not necessarily. Milan gave it one hell of a fright and, for all of Tuesday's heroics, the prospect of drawing Barcelona in the quarterfinal no longer seems the impossible task it might have been. It still allows chances at the back: before Niang's miss, Stephan El-Shaarway gave notice with a few dangerous runs behind the back line; after Barcelona's third, there were a few nerve-jangling moments in its own penalty area, not least when Bojan Krkic cut it back for Robinho, only for Jordi Alba to block superbly.
Since coach Tito Vilanova left his post to get treatment for throat cancer in New York -- during which time the team has left his seat unoccupied on the bench -- Barcelona has won seven of its last 14 games, drawing three and losing four.
So what had gone wrong at Camp Nou since the turn of the year? Was it complacency? Tiredness? An absent coach? Too much Messi-dependence? All of those things, said former Milan coach (and one-time Real Madrid sports director) Arrigo Sacchi, who told
Well, Messi and Barcelona have rediscovered that zest now. And just in time. Now, who fancies a Barcelona-Real Madrid quarterfinal?
Didier Drogba claimed foul play after a clash with Benedikt Howedes from the set piece but was quick enough to jump up to complain once the ball had gone in. By the end of the first half, he was hobbling off the pitch, his arms around the shoulders of two teammates. (It's OK, though, he made the second half and in fact lasted the full 95 minutes.)
By then, though, Galatasaray was 2-1 up, thanks to a sensational equalizer from Hamit Altintop, a former Schalke player born in Gelsenkirchen, who had hit the woodwork more than any other player in Europe this season. His shot, from a quickly taken free kick, swerved in off the post from 30 yards out. It was just as refreshing to see his passionate celebration: a nice contrast to the self-conscious non-celebration of Ronaldo at Old Trafford last week.
Five minutes later, the forward Galatasaray bought to do damage this season -- that's Yilmaz, not Drogba -- did what he has been doing all year, latching onto a long clearance, outpacing his marker and lobbing the ball smartly over Schalke goalie Timo Hildebrand.
The second half was one-way traffic as Schalke poured forward, looking to get back into the tie. Marco Hoeger hit the crossbar and Teemu Pukki, the under-performing replacement for the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, shot when he could have passed to Michel Bastos. The Brazilian winger, though, was a threat, and after Atsuto Uchida cut the ball back, he smashed it home to level the score at 2-2.
Galatasaray still had the advantage on away goals, and as the host pushed men forward, it left gaps at the back. When Christian Fuchs overhit a stoppage-time cross, Galatasaray goalie Fernando Muslera caught it and quickly rolled it out. One pass later and sub Umut Bulut was through on goal against Hildebrand. He fluffed his first effort, but the rebound bounced kindly for him, and he tapped it in to break Schalke hearts.
As Gala coach Fatih Terim danced a jig of delight on the touchline, it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Schalke midfielder Julian Draxler, who was outstanding. Interim coach Jens Keller's job prospects for next season now look a little more fluid. The headline writers will focus on Drogba and Wesley Sneijder, but tonight, as for most of the season, it was Yilmaz who made the difference up front for Galatasaray.