FC Barcelona have spent their season rampaging through the La Liga schedule, but their back is now firmly planted against the wall in Europe's toughest competition.
In a result that shocked many, AC Milan defeated Barcelona 2-0 on Wednesday to put Barca's Champions League hopes on life support. Milan were able to do this despite Barcelona controlling possession for most of the match, thanks to a brilliant defensive scheme.
With the second leg coming up in March, Barcelona have to go back to the drawing board. One away goal at Camp Nou for Milan, and the La Liga giant will be watching the final eight teams in Champions League play from home.
Considering they came in as one of the favorites to win the entire championship, it's critical that they improve on their performance from Wednesday. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of a few things Barcelona must do in preparation for a critical second leg.
Fix Whatever Happened to the Midfield
Lionel Messi may score the goals and (rightfully) get a ton of accolades, but Barcelona's excellent midfield allows that to happen. Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta are among the best passers in the world.
Looking at the clean sheet before them, it's no surprise that both men failed to show up on Wednesday. Iniesta, save for a shot in the 76th minute, was particularly dreadful. He failed to advance the ball throughout the match, stifling the Barcelona attack, and gave up possession far more than even the most pessimistic Catalan fans expected.
Fabregas wasn't all that much better. His form was noticeably off, especially in positioning, and he was sent off in the 62nd minute for Alexis Sanchez.
The performances of Fabregas and Iniesta defanged Messi, who was seemingly left on an island offensively. Not even arguably the world's best player—who wasn't in the best form himself, for the record—can create an attack without help.
The one thing going in Barcelona's favor is that Wednesday's performance was an anomaly. Both Fabregas and Iniesta have had bad games before, but almost never on the same occasion. They are among the best shot-creators in the world for a reason, and should be able to figure out Milan's defensive scheme with time to prepare.
That just did not help in the first leg.
Adjust Better to the Opposition's Schemes
It was apparent from very early in the match how Milan planned on attacking Barcelona. They were going to avoid unnecessary challenges and allow Barca to keep possession just as long as they never got within scoring range.
And that's exactly what Milan did—for the entire 90 minutes. Barcelona kept possession for a whopping 72 percent of the match, aimlessly passing the ball around midfield and rarely ever getting beyond the 20-yard line.
Case in point: Messi had just one touch inside Milan's penalty area. That's both indicative of the aforementioned struggles in the midfield, but also a complete lack of adjustment from Barcelona's side.
They looked satisfied taking a 0-0 draw back to Camp Nou, and allowed the awareness and aggression of Milan to do them in.
Part of that is due to a lack of form from top players. There is little excuse for Messi disappearing for lengthy stretches as he did, and while the defense has gone mostly uncriticized by pundits, it wasn't all that much better.
However, one cannot help but criticize the lack of proactive managing. Barcelona made very few adjustments to their attack plan in the second half, and it showed in a huge way. That's ultimately uncharacteristic, but it's a fact worth keeping an eye out for in the second leg.
Stop Blaming the Pitch and Move Forward
Though it was apparent to just about everyone watching that Milan were the far superior side on Wednesday, there were some noticeable problems with the San Siro pitch. It was a little cut up in certain spots, and Barcelona were not happy following the match.
The most notable critic of the playing surface was assistant Jordi Roura. Speaking after the match, Roura implied the pitch was unfit and that Barcelona would fare better at Camp Nou.
"It's bad to lose 2-0, but we're convinced that when we'll be playing at home in front of our own fans on a pitch that is fit for this competition, we will overcome this setback," said Roura (via FIFA.com).
This is not the first time Barcelona have complained about the pitch conditions at San Siro. The Catalans lodged a complaint with UEFA last season after their quarterfinal match in Milan, complaining that the pitch was unfit.
Say what you will about the merits of those claims, but complaining will not help the Catalans this season. They did not do enough to defeat Milan on any surface, and the conditions Wednesday were far better than a year ago.
With their backs against the wall, it's critical that Barcelona avoid blaming anyone or anything for their loss. It won't help and could only add to the pressure when the two sides meet in March.