Barcelona are through to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals after incredibly defeating AC Milan 4-0 at the Nou Camp on Tuesday.
Coming into the second leg with a two-goal deficit, the La Liga leaders knew exactly what stood ahead of them and exactly how tough it would be to win. They understood how strong Milan would be in defense and how successful their setup had been in the opening leg.
And yet, thanks to the ever-evolving brilliance of Lionel Messi, La Blaugrana had erased Milan's advantage by halftime and went on to record the victory.
The Argentinian wizard would score the first of his two goals in just the fifth minute of play—a sensational goal, even by his high standards.
Despite facing a myriad of defenders at the top of the Milan box, Messi was able to quickly shift power from his right foot to his left, and then dip the ball exquisitely under the crossbar. Christian Abbiati could do nothing but watch the ball sail into the back of the net.
That made it 2-1 AC Milan on aggregate.
As expected, the Spanish hosts would then start to take over with their tiki-taka style of play—dominating possession and attacking opportunities.
Pedro would be denied a penalty after being brought down in the box after 10 minutes. Andres Iniesta was incredibly unlucky not to score after his brilliant volley forced an incredible Abbiati-into-crossbar save—a rebound which Messi somehow failed to put away from three yards out.
David Villa would then nearly score after a horrendous back pass, with Abbiati forced to make another brilliant save just moments later.
And that was just the next 10 minutes of the match.
Yet as we saw in the first leg, despite Barca's possession and territorial dominance, Milan still had opportunities to score on the counterattack.
Stephan El Shaarawy found himself with a couple of efforts on goal around the half-hour mark, but it was M'Baye Niang who had the best opportunity to score.
After finding himself in a runaway one-on-one with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, the teenage attacker somehow didn't put the ball into the back of the net—hitting the right post with his shot, and answering the prayers of every Barcelona fan in the process.
Especially when, just two minutes later, Iniesta would find Messi with a delightful pass on the top of the box—which he would duly finish into the corner once more. This time Abbiati would be beaten down low to his left, but again, helpless to stop the brilliance of Messi and Barcelona.
Barcelona 2, Milan 2, and suddenly the impossible seemed possible again.
The "deadlock" would remain into the halftime interval, with the Rossoneri no doubt glad to hear the referee's whistle. They had, after all, just 24 percent possession compared to Barca's 76 percent, and had made 35 tackles and interceptions in just the opening 45 minutes.
It had been complete and utter dominance by Barcelona, with the scoreline (2-0 on the night) and the the statistics not doing justice to their control in this one.
The second half would produce more of the same from both teams to begin with, as they respectively tried to find space on the counterattack against their opponents. But once again, it would be Barca who gained control of the middle and indeed possession, and made it count soon after.
Javier Mascherano would force a turnover from Milan in the final third of attack, which would in turn allow Xavi to thread a delightful pass to David Villa.
The striker, on his now-favored left foot, would make no mistake—curling the ball around a stranded Abbiati to give Barcelona their elusive 3-0 lead on the night and, more importantly, a 3-2 lead over their Italian opponents, who simply looked stunned at what had taken place before them.
Milan would immediately make substitutions in Sulley Muntari and Robinho to try to give them some attacking threats again, but it would be to no avail.
Barcelona were simply in complete control and weren't allowing the visitors any real goal-scoring opportunities in the second half. From their defense right up to the top of their attack, La Blaugrana were dominating in every aspect of the game and Milan did not stand a chance against it.
The La Liga leaders would continue to pepper Milan's goal throughout the second half, with several free kicks and long shots going close from Barca. However, with the game at their mercy, it seemed that the Spanish hosts were prepared to simply control possession and the flow of the game.
That was, until they seemingly got wind of their lead, and started to sputter under the weight of expectation and pressure that was growing on them.
Milan would attack and very nearly grab the crucial away-goal when Robinho was just beaten to a low cross into the box by Jordi Alba with around 15 minutes to go. Throwing defenders, midfielders and attackers at the Blaugrana, the complexion of the tie had completely changed, with Milan looking the most likely to score the goal needed to finish this fixture.
However, as they've done time and time again this year, Barca held firm, and they grabbed the game's final goal after a lethal counterattack led by Messi.
Left-back Jordi Alba would race up to beat Abbiati and send the Nou Camp crowd into delirium. More importantly, he would send Barcelona through to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League for 2013—a place where we all secretly knew they would get to eventually.
Milan will no doubt be heartbroken, but the reality is they were beaten by a better team on the night. A team that, if they play like that for the remainder of the tournament, will be incredibly tough to stop from achieving European success this season.
Especially with Lionel Messi in their midst.
Lionel Messi, Barcelona: A+
We all know how good Lionel Messi is as an attacking threat; we all know how freakishly talented and successful he can be with the ball at his feet.
And yet we were still stunned at what the Argentinian achieved here for Barcelona—leading them back into a match that seemed somewhat beyond them.
His two goals were perfect examples of the class and talent that he shows every time he graces the field, and continued to be a threat for the Milan defenders all night. Be it his passing, his movement or his shooting abilities—Milan simply had no answer to the Barcelona No. 10.
It was every bit of the A+ performance that the pundits will suggest.
Stephan El Shaarawy, AC Milan: C
Italian international Stephan El Shaarawy proved in the first leg that he is a genuine weapon on the counterattack and deadly with the ball at his feet.
His pace and ability to get in behind defenders had a profound impact on that leg, and so, it was naturally assumed that he would do the same here—which, in the first half hour or so of the game, the Milan striker was able to do to some extent.
However, when Milan were desperately pushing to get something going in attack, and needing a goal to keep their Champions League hopes alive, El Shaarawy was nowhere to be found.
He would finish with just 42 touches on the night and two shots on target. For their No. 1 striker against a vulnerable defense, that simply wasn't good enough.
Xavi, Barcelona: A+
For every bit of the attacking threat that Messi was, it was Xavi in behind him that was the master of Barcelona's attack—pulling the strings for La Blaugrana.
The midfield maestro would deliver a master-class to all center-halves on how to inspire creativity and control across and entire team. He was absolutely everywhere for Barca—in both attack and defense—and his final passing numbers were simply phenomenal.
Three goal-scoring opportunities created, two assists, a whopping 136 total passes at a 90 percent completion rate—as well as three key tackles.
There was no Barcelona comeback without Xavi tonight.
Riccardo Montolivo, AC Milan: B+
In a losing team, Montolivo was extraordinary—doing everything he could to keep the Rossoneri from falling behind against the might of Barcelona.
Despite Barca's dominance in possession and attack, Montolivo led the Italian giants in nearly every category on the night, and really deserved more from his teammates. He recorded 71 touches (team-high), but his greatest work here came on the defense side of things.
Montolivo would record a staggering eight tackles and six interceptions (both team highs) and two blocked shots, but he could not keep Barca at bay.
Not by himself, anyway.
What did you make of Barcelona's incredible Champions League win?
Comment below or hit me up on Twitter: Follow @dantalintyre