The Beginning of the End for Barca Supremacy?

FC Barcelona fell to only their third defeat in all major competitions on Wednesday evening, going down 2-0 in the first leg of their last 16 encounter with Italian giants AC Milan. Milan’s persistent concentration and hard work off the ball proved suffice enough to scupper the so often breath taking attacking prowess of the Blaugrana. The Rossoneri now have a precious two goal advantage to take the Camp Nou in three weeks’ time, and perhaps most crucially, Barca did not find a vital away goal. The result provided the football world with a potent reminder that nothing in football is guaranteed, not even where the team often renowned “the greatest ever” are involved. So, what – if anything – does this result tell us about Barcelona’s supremacy at the peak of European football?

A key component in Milan’s victory, as is consistent with any victory over this Barcelona side, was their defensive discipline. The other notable blips in Barca’s campaign previously came against Scottish champions Celtic in the Champions League group phase and a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Sociedad in La Liga. Milan’s concentration and pressure on Barcelona when they were in possession severely restricted the Catalans ability to create space and in turn clear cut chances. The ever present ‘weak-link’ in the Barca machine, their own defence, was found wanting again and through first Boateng and then Muntari Milan capitalised effectively.

Despite the impressive defensive showing from the Rossoneri rear-guard, there can no disputing that Barca did not match their usually consistently high standards. Without the ball, they did not exert enough pressure high up on Milan in the way that has become synonymous with their brand of football. Milan on the other hand, almost beat Barcelona at their own game by closing them down quickly and often surrounding the player in possession to restrict his passing options. The other vital aspect absent from their performance last night was intensity and conviction in their final pass. Having been at Celtic Park in November, when Celtic overcame Barca 2-1 on the night, Celtic stopper Fraser Forster was called upon numerous times to keep the Scots in the game. On Wednesday evening however, Christian Abbiati was not really tested or over stretched on any occasion. This is particularly unusual in a game involving Barcelona and is perhaps the most unexpected facet of their performance against Milan. Lionel Messi was also peculiarly ineffective, read into that what you will.

Barcelona now face a difficult task in overturning that first leg 2-0 deficit, particularly if Milan produce a similarly effective defensive display in the Camp Nou on March 12th. There may also, understandably, be an uneasy atmosphere created in the group by the absence of Tito Vilanova from the sidelines and in concern for his health. However, without the high up pressure and intensity in the final third, these upsets could become a regular occurrence. There can be no doubt Barca will bounce back from this defeat and they remain the club who set the standard across the globe but, and it’s a big but, having all but wrapped up the Primera Liga title can they fight back and maintain their supremacy in the Champions League?

Paul McTaggart