If the world came to a stop last week at Old Trafford, it will at least pause again Tuesday at the Nou Camp. No matter the outcome, one of Europe's most successful clubs will be out of the UEFA Champions League early.
Mighty Barcelona are on the ropes, and only an epic remontada will make it right. AC Milan, meanwhile, are on the verge of producing a surprising success in a season that previously seemed destined for mediocrity.
Three weeks ago, Milan stunned Barcelona with a pitch-perfect defensive performance at the San Siro, deservedly winning 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie. The second leg is scheduled for Tuesday (3:45 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer), and it is without doubt the most anticipated European match of the week.
With their European season at stake, Barcelona's players have spoken extensively about producing a remontada, or comeback, against Milan. Champions League winners in 2009 and 2011, Barcelona have reached at least the semifinals of the competition every season since 2007-08.
"This generation (of Barcelona players) hasn't made a comeback and we'd like to," said midfielder Xavi Hernandez (via FCBarcelona YouTube). Midfielder Andres Iniesta said he would put his "hand in a fire to get through (to the quarterfinals)."
Added defender Javier Mascherano: "If we change things, I'm sure we'll turn it around."
It won't be easy, even with Barcelona enjoying home-field advantage at the Nou Camp. After selling star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain last summer, Milan started the season in poor form before gaining momentum lately.
Then, as B/R's Sam Tighe outlined expertly in his post-match analysis, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri produced a brilliant defensive plan in the first leg against Barcelona. The plan played out in three phases.
First, Milan adopted a defense-first posture akin to the one Chelsea used successfully against Barcelona in last season's semifinals. Central defenders Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata sat deep and kept their full-backs tight in a flat back-line.
Massimo Ambrosini, Riccardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari formed what Tighe called a "triple midfield anchor," with Muntari shadowing Barca playmaker Xavi Hernandez around the pitch.
In the second phase, after Milan took the lead, the Rossoneri actually advanced their collective position up the pitch, opening space between the defense and midfield.
In the third phase, after Milan scored their second goal, the entire team pressured Barcelona as the visitors searched in vain for a potentially tie-altering consolation strike. Milan's wingers sprinted into central areas to harry Xavi and Sergio Busquets as defenders filled in gaps effectively.
The plan worked remarkably well, but Milan also benefited from a sub-par game from superstar forward Lionel Messi. The four-time defending Ballon d'Or winner scored at the weekend as Barcelona won 2-0 at home to Deportivo La Coruña, and more will be expected from the Argentine on Tuesday.
Barca's clean sheet against Deportivo snapped a 13-match run of conceding at least one goal. Defender Gerard Pique hinted that a repeat performance is the goal Tuesday as Barca try to win for manager Tito Vilanova, who is receiving treatment for throat cancer in New York.
Milan won 2-0 at Genoa on Friday.
"We come back to the Camp Nou two goals down and we have to fight back," said Pique (via FCBarcelona.com). "We’ll attack from the off—which is our way of doing things—and we hope to win 3-0.”
Beyond Milan's tactics, Barcelona also face an uphill fight against history. According to Reuters (via The Independent), no Champions League team has reversed a first-leg deficit of two goals or more without scoring an away goal. And as Sid Lowe writes for The Guardian, it's Real Madrid rather than Barcelona who have a history of second-leg comebacks
Which team will advance?
Barca and Milan played twice at the Nou Camp last season. The teams drew 2-2 in a Champions League group-stage match before Barcelona won 3-1 in the quarterfinals. Milan's only win at Barcelona was a 2-0 decision in September 2000 (via SoccerBase).
In team news, Milan forward Giampaolo Pazzini will not play after suffering a bruised right leg (via Associated Press). Another forward, Mario Balotelli, remains cup-tied to Manchester City. For Barcelona, Xavi returned to training last week following a thigh injury (via Sky Sports) but did not play against Deportivo.
Four clubs—Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain—have already qualified for the quarterfinals. To join them, Barcelona will need a historic comeback and a new plan against Milan's stingy defense.