[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Tournament favorite Barcelona begins the knockout phase on Wednesday opposite AC Milan at the San Siro, where Lionel Messi and Co.’s chief adversary may well be history.
TV: AC Milan-Barcelona (Wednesday 2:45pm ET, Fox Soccer)
The Legacy: The notion Barcelona belongs alongside Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, seven-time European champion AC Milan, or even Ajax, is a fairly new one.
Barca claimed three of its four Champions League titles in the last seven tournaments while more than half of its 21 La Liga titles came after 1990.
Archrival Real Madrid won its fourth European Cup in 1959 and a 21st Spanish crown in 1986. Its nine European Cups and 32 La Liga titles are records the Catalonian team is keenly aware of, and intends to continue reeling in.
Expecting La Masia to turn out players like Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and a demigod in cleats from Argentina routinely would be foolish. Barca is the best team of its generation, and that alone applies pressure to win.
The Loneliest Number: When the 2022 World Cup starts in Qatar Lionel Messi will be 35, suggesting he’ll have just two opportunities to claim the sport’s Holy Grail in his prime with Argentina, after it squandered one indulging coaching novice Diego Maradona.
The absence of a World Cup would mean Messi’s immortality rests upon laying unassailable scoring records beside absurd amounts of Ballon d’Or, La Liga and Champions League hardware. Twelve points up in La Liga, with a 300th goal for Barca over the weekend, and a fourth Golden Ball in hand, raising this trophy would represent a monster haul, even for La Pulga.
The world’s second best is represented by either Cristiano Ronaldo’s bravado, or Iniesta’s subtle wizardry, for Leo has undoubtedly entered the rarefied air of Diego and Pele. Competing with statues, lore, and things beyond his control.
The Barca Blueprint: Still susceptible when clubs put 10 men behind the ball, allow possession, and hit on the counter, this proven strategy will be employed until Barca renders it moot, the loss at Celtic the most recent proof.
Unfortunately for Milan, its players best suited for the task left last summer, including Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The defense rests: Jordi Alba is dangerous, but doesn’t track back like the unsung Eric Abidal once did, and with Dani Alves opposite, Barca often finds itself with just two defenders and gifted plodder Sergio Busquets in back.
Slim and None: Milan is now fourth in Serie A, it was 13th in November, but its eight group points were the lowest of any team to advance in the Champions League. Stephan El Shaarawy, at 20, has had a breakout season, second in Italy with 15 goals, while Giampaolo Pazzini has 10.
Bojan Krkic broke Messi’s record at Barca for the youngest La Liga debut in 2007, but the former phenom has just three goals in 26 games at Milan, where the player most likely to trouble Barca, Mario Balotelli, is cup-tied to Man City.
Home-field disadvantage: Barca lodged an official complaint after last year’s scoreless quarterfinal first-leg about the San Siro’s notoriously shoddy field, since replaced with a synthetic-grass hybrid, suiting the visitors.
The Skinny: You’ve seen this movie before. Barcelona owns possession, and an opponent dares it to score around and through 11 pairs of arms and legs. Barca won’t be taking anything for granted, searching for early goals that will force Milan to extend itself.
All scenarios involving a Milan win over two legs seem contrived, so appreciate Barca’s historic brilliance unfolding before your eyes.
Notes: Jordi Roura coaches Barca as Tito Vilanova recovers from throat surgery… Barca beat Milan twice, and drew twice, during four UCL matches last season … David Villa and Adriano are out while Xavi returns from injury… Barca has either won or been eliminated by the eventual champion in five straight UCL’s … Pato left Milan for Corinthians in January. … Milan pays 80 to 1, while Barca is now an unheard of 15/8 to win the tournament ...