When Barcelona failed to make it through into the Champions League final last season, everyone talked about how Barcelona needed a real striker to help Lionel Messi against defenses that park the bus. From the first minute in their comeback attempt against AC Milan, it was clear that Barca finally made the right choice up front, and all across the pitch.
The return to the 3-4-3 Pep Guardiola began experimenting and implementing last season was a risky thought, but one that paid off. It didn’t move Messi from where he’s comfortable, but shifted people around him to give Barcelona and him a much more dangerous look.
For once, Dani Alves looked like himself, maybe for the first time this season. Not part of a back four, he was free to attack and attack and completely dominate the wing, forcing both Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin Constant to focus on him, and loosen their team barricading. David Villa playing in the middle of the attack isn’t a new notion, but something Barcelona haven’t used much. It gave Lionel Messi a lot more space to operate, and his two goals came from not having someone – Ambrosini or Mexes, breathing down his neck.
Mexes, along with Zapata next to him, had to be more watchful of what Villa was doing in the danger area, while Massimo Ambrosini and Ricardo Montolivo couldn’t decide between trying to hold the middle against an excellent Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, or drop back to stop Messi, but leave gaps in the middle. Javier Mascerano was the loose centre back, somewhat of a free safety in American football, who was there to press and stop every Milan attack in their own half each time Barcelona turned the ball over.
Beyond all the tactics, it’s a game of execution. Messi took advantage of the first shot he had, and that forced Milan to open up a little bit and start playing football much earlier than they intended to do. If M’baye Niang scores and doesn’t hit the post in his one on one with Victor Valdes, who knows how this match ends. But he didn’t, Lionel Messi scored his second goal in the match and his 53rd of the season. IF is a word people love to use in hindsight, but beyond tactics and mismatches, it’s about making the right play at the right time.
Maybe it’s the Papacy? A stat has been running around the web all night, about Barcelona winning 4-0 every time the Conclave convenes to elect a new pope. It was also the first time Messi scored not via penalty against an Italian team, an Italian defense, that has a Colombian and French centre back. People are too hung up on stereotypes without looking at the substance. When Mexes has to zonal mark an area, he isn’t nearly as effective as he is in man marking, and that was a big part of the difference between the two legs.
The talk about the fall of the dynasty, as expected, were premature. Barcelona are a great team, and Lionel Messi, IMO, is still the best in the world. Bad stretches will come, but overall quality usually prevails. The right tactic for the right time, along with the forward pressure that hasn’t been seen in quite some time, and everything seems back to normal.