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Tonight, Spanish Football's Barcelona FC hosts Italy's AC Milan for the second leg of their Champions League group of 16 match. The Catalans, behind 0-2, must win by a 3-0 margin, or, in the case that Milan scores once, they must win 4-1.
It seems unlikely that a team that could not score a single goal in the first leg would be able to score three or four times in the second, particularly when the Italian's strength is defense. Milan does not even need to score, all they need to do is focus on stopping Lionel Messi's gang from doing so. It would seem a no-brainer to pick the Italians to move on.
But, Barca and Messi do not have a signature game this season--such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid have with their Copa del Rey win over Barcelona 3-1 at the Camp Nou, and their Champions League win over Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford. Barcelona FC, under most circumstances, is still the best team on the planet, and they are very much aware that this game at home is a critical time to shine.
This game's significance to Barca is simple--it is the opportunity to cement their on-going legacy with a historic win and lay to rest the early talk of their descent from football's Olympus. At a time when their archrivals are in the ascendency, and a younger Bayern Munich keeps making a mockery of all opposition, the Catalans need to make a statement.
Now comes match day. It is going to pour steadily all game long, the forecasters are telling us. I believe adverse weather does not affect both teams equally, it affects the better teams more since it is just as likely that a better player slips than a lesser one, negating the advantage the better player would have of not messing up on a clear day. Furthermore, the weather could easily also take away the thrust of the home-field advantage. So, it would seem the deck is fully stacked against Messi and his team.
But, I believe that the Catalans can pull a historic victory at home, despite the weather, and all the odds, if they do three things this time out.
First, they must provide a credible attacking alternative to Messi. Otherwise, all AC Milan need do is keep tabs on the diminutive Argentine to nullify the Barca attack. That offensive alternative cannot be Alexis Sanchez or Pedro, who need company to produce, it must be David Villa, a true striker, one capable of taking destabilizing action on his own.
Second, Xavi and Andres Iniesta (and Cesc Fabregas if called upon) have to hook up with Messi further up the field instead of exclusively near the box, where the four Milan backs can more easily nullify Barca's classic attacking forays. Bringing Milan's defensive line out of their shell (to cover the early combination of the Catalan superstars) will open space behind them that a natural scorer like Villa can exploit.
Third, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba must provide their offensive punch too. They were nearly invisible in the first match. This time around both of them must provide the type of wing play that stretches opponents and leaves more space in the middle for Messi and company to exploit. That wing play must be a combination of ball retention, crosses, and the occasional shot on goal to keep Milan's goalkeeper, Christian Abbiati, honest.
Whatever misgivings one may have about the Barca defense, if their offense is clicking, the Catalans will not be defending as much and their liability will be minimized.
If Barca can do this in the rain, they have a shot. If they can get an early score, or two goals in the first half, the second half will be a lot more open. If this libretto is followed, I believe Milan will feel itself forced to break out of its defensive shell to staunch the bleeding, and to avoid a penalty shoot out. This is a natural reaction, but one that will backfire, leading to a third and decisive Barca goal.