Xavi's Return Inspired Barcelona Comeback Against AC Milan

Samuel MarsdenFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2013

On Tuesday afternoon in Plaça Reial—just off of Barcelona's Las Ramblas—a group of adolescents, who could only be described as a One Direction tribute act, silenced the chanting AC Milan fans with an impromptu performance which drew a large crowd.

It was at a similar time, a short distance away, that Xavi Hernandez was passing a fitness test in a moment which would act as the catalyst to silence the Milan fans completely.

Champions League nights are special and, like Manchester United and Real Madrid, their was something special about Barcelona and AC Milan's clash that felt more befitting of a later stage than the last 16.

Two of Europe's greatest sides doing battle in the continent's biggest stadium. The Italians against the Spanish. The seven times winners against the four times winners.

And from the moment that Xavi passed that test and bodies started pouring out of the Metro stop as Les Corts, there was a feeling in the Catalan air of optimism. No, belief.

As the Barcelona paper Sport put it in the morning: "La Remontada Es Posible."

Three at the back went a Twitter rumour. Alexis to start, no Thiago. Yet all it really took was Xavi to return while Javier Mascherano got the nod ahead of Carles Puyol and David Villa replaced Cesc Fabregas allowing Andres Iniesta to shift into the middle.

"El Cant Del Barca" flowed from the speakers, followed by the Champions League anthem to the background of cigarette smoke and a 96,000 fan-held mosaic stating in Catalan: "Som Un Equip." We are a team.

The atmosphere inside Camp Nou was not one of a side facing an uphill battle. Within five minutes those feelings where justified, Xavi the creator as Lionel Messi fired La Blaugrana into a lead on the night. Blink and you'd have missed it.

Iniesta then rocked the Milan bar, before Xavi forced a wonderful save from Christian Abbiati. Messi soon levelled the aggregate scores though, Iniesta assisting this time.

Xavi completed 90 percent of his 125 passes on the night (via whoscored.com) and one of them was the key one in the third goal, scored by David Villa. The goal that put Barca ahead in the tie, completed the comeback and silenced the Milan fans in a way the tribute act earlier in the day could only have dreamed off.

There was a flurry of Milan activity in the last 10 minutes, as they sought the away goal that could have taken them through. Piercing whistles rang all around Camp Nou during a decent spell of Los Rossoneri pressure, but they soon changed to cheers as Jordi Alba plunked the proverbial cherry on the cake in injury time.

Messi's goals will again steal the headlines, but last week we saw Sir Alex Ferguson use Danny Welbeck to stop Xabi Alonso for Real Madrid. Leaving Camp Nou after another Xavi masterclass, you get the feeling Massimiliano Allegri may regret not having tried the same tactic. Maybe he didn't expect Xavi to be fit.

Short or long balls, Xavi, as Xavi does, made Barcelona tick; captaining, creating two goals, controlling play for La Blaugrana. Included in his 90 percent pass completion rate were 11 accurate long balls out of 12 attempted—while he was never dispossessed (via whoscored.com).

The turning point in the tie happened four hours before kick-off, when the 33-year-old passed his fitness test.