Lionel Messi reaffirmed his love affair with the UEFA Champions League, scoring in each half as FC Barcelona deservedly defeated AC Milan and qualified for the last 16 with two games to spare.
His elegant strike with seven minutes left settled a testing night at the Camp Nou. Messi's first-half penalty – added to by Sergio Busquets's header – had left Gerardo Martino's side looking comfortable, only for an own goal on the cusp of half-time from Gerard Piqué to open the door to a Milan fightback.
Indeed, for most of the first period the story was one of tension and tenacity. While the Spanish champions bossed the ball and created minor openings, they never went through the notes to hit major keys and reach a crescendo. Christian Abbiati was busy, but seldom in extremis, and his neat work to block Neymar and Messi was simply the product of a sharp, in-form keeper.
Adriano stung his fingertips with a fierce drive, but the reason that the net behind Abbiati bulged for the first time must be put down to a basic drop in concentration by the defence in front of him. Andrés Iniesta was allowed freedom to clip a pass through to Neymar and Ignazio Abate tugged him back. Up stepped Messi and he ate into Raúl González's all-time competition record of 71 goals.
The lead became two for the same fundamental reason. Rossoneri captain Riccardo Montolivo committed a needless foul on Neymar, Xavi Hernández put vicious bend on the resulting free-kick and Busquets was splendidly isolated to glance his header in.
There were five minutes to the break but by the time the players trooped off it was to the sound of Milanese chanting. Kaká's run left Daniel Alves struggling in its wake and the cross-shot was deftly sliced past Víctor Valdés by Piqué.
Although Milan's confidence rose, and the 46th-minute introduction of Mario Balotelli helped, the goal jolted the Catalans. Iniesta struck a measured shot towards the bottom corner of the Milan net not long after the restart, but Abbiati continued his fine night by diving full length and tipping the ball away.
Then, drama. Neymar clearly thought the contest needed settling and weaved past three Milan defenders in the box only to slip slightly and skew his effort wide. Next he set Messi free and a goal looked sure when the ball was fed to Alexis Sánchez, only for Abbiati to dwarf all his previous work with a fabulous stop. Not that he could do the same when Messi finished off a give-and-go with Cesc Fàbregas late on.
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