[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] AC Milan's astonishing performance at the San Siro in Italy finds Barcelona with its back against the wall in Spain for Tuesday's second leg at the Camp Nou where the world's best team must draw a line in the sand, or get swept away.
TV: AC Milan–Barcelona (Tuesday 2:45 pm ET, Fox Soccer)
THE HARD TRUTH: Milan’s 2-0 win in Italy has Barcelona in dire straights, needing a three-goal margin to progress. AC Milan hasn’t lost by any scoreline all season that would result in its elimination. Barca posted several results that would see it progress, although Saturday’s 2-0 win over Deportivo was its first shutout in 14 games.
THE SANDS OF TIME: The first leg was Xavi’s only full 90 since January, but Barca’s midfield conductor has stated he’ll take a shot in his torn hamstring if necessary.
"We are playing for our season on Tuesday, and I want to be there," Xavi told El Mundo Deportivo. "I will do everything possible to get there, if not at 100% then at 90% or 95%."
This year’s final is May 25th at Wembley. Xavi will be 33 years old, Andres Iniesta29, Dani Alves30, David Villa 31, and Carles Puyol 35.
Victor Valdes, 31, has announced he’s leaving after next season, Sergio Busquets, 24, is the only player under 25 whose future appears certain in Barcelona, while homegrown Cesc Fabregas, 25, has heard whistles at the Camp Nou recently -- mostly because he’s not Xavi.
TIME TO SHINE: One of several regulars rested Saturday, Lionel Messi still bagged his 40th La Liga goal and another world record by scoring in a 17th straight league appearance, all in under 30 minutes of work. And yet, Messi’s recent performances have become the subject of considerable scrutiny.
Nearly invisible in Milan, Leo had two forgettable games against Real Madrid in a pair of losses, one included a goal, and both included being outplayed by Cristiano Ronaldo.
The world’s best must remind his teammates, and Milan’s defenders, how he came to own that title.
SUBMIT YOUR FORMS: Since the group phase of the UCL Milan played 16 matches, won 11, tied three, and lost twice. Barcelona played 20, winning 14, with three draws and three losses – all coming in its last five games.
After sitting as low as 13th in November Milan’s 2-0 win at Genoa on Friday made 10 straight unbeaten and third in Serie A. Barcelona is 13 points clear in La Liga.
TACTICAL LIFT: Stephan El Shaarawy, 20, and Riccardo Montolivo were two big reasons Milan did more than defend and counter three weeks ago, showing the Blaugrana respect, then outplaying them. But its current goal advantage screams for the Barca blueprint with 10 behind the ball and all hands on deck, especially considering Barcelona simply hasn’t shown an Option B.
Milan’s second leading scorer Giampaolo Pazzini is out, starters Kevin-Prince Boateng and Philippe Mexes are battling injuries, but its Mexes’ leadership in defense that will prove vital if Max Allegri chooses to play compact with his young Rossoneri squad in unnatural positions.
Starting Villa and featuring him centrally is about as exotic as Barcelona gets regarding personnel, with Gerard Pique, Busquets, and Alex Song off the bench, its only alternatives over 5-foot-10, and both teams know it.
THE SKINNY: Barca’s players have made it clear they’ll search for an early goal, the longer that takes the more entrenched Milan will become on defense, and a counter putting things out of reach becomes more probable, with the likely villains being El Shaarawy or 18-year-old M’Baye Niang, who was phenomenal as a sub in Italy.
Messi, Iniesta and Xavi know this is a one game season, while Milan arrives brimming with confidence and unlikely to lose cheaply. If Barca wants this game it's going to have to show some mental and physical toughness.
There are few things in sport more compelling than finding out how greatness reacts when backed into a corner. Barcelona will show us once more what it's capable of, or it will watch AC Milan walk into the quarterfinals on Barca's home field.