Yes. After Lexus heeded thousands of throats and swung the ball over to the other side of the pitch. After Jordi Alba received it with only Abbiati to beat. After the ball hit the net for the fourth time with a minute left to play. After more than ninety minutes had already passed, it was finally removed from our hearts.
Hands up those who during the weeks leading up to match day gave in to that most human of emotions.
There’s no shame in feeling it. My hands are up there, kinda, and I am not ashamed of it. It’s as natural as dandruff. If after San Siro I offered a glimmer of hope by listing the terrible comebacks suffered by our Milanese maestros, it was still but a perfunctory glimmer to end the review. Subsequent losses to M***** helped to fade its twinkle.
The robbery at Manchester (has the ref been locked up in a Turkish prison yet?) lit up a flame of rage in my belly. Our season’s over. M*****’s gonna dwarf our domestic success by winning the Champion’s League. There is no comeback from Two Zero. What remontada? Like we never heard that promise before. We need to score at least three but we don’t create chances. We cannot concede but our defense has not been this weak since 1962.
Doubt? I have no doubt. We are done for!
Still, fanhood is such that loss of belief can only be temporary. Right about the time my heart started making room for some belief, Kxevin served us with a reminder that, yes, we must believe. And although I still didn’t think we would go through, I believed we had a chance. With a game left to play, even the hopeless hope.
So when superassistant Roura offered us a hand with some VV, JA, Masch, Piqué, DA, Busi, Xavi, Ini, Messi, Villa and P! I didn’t fret about why the line-up did not include Adriano and Alexis Sanchez, two players I thought would heighten our chances of success. I believed our technical staff knows best.
We started well, and then we started well. After zipping the leather around as if the Camp Nou were a giant pinball machine Messi scored a goal that was so unbelievable it removed all doubt. Now I believed.
Soon, the not-so-quite rossoneri got caught up in a blaugrana whirlwind. On the ball we tried to score goal number 2 and 3 at the same time. Off the ball we squeezed the soul out of our bodies to get that mofo back. It was a delight and quite frankly an exhilarating sight to see us press Milan so intensively during those first twenty minutes. Iniesta was all over the place. Dani Alves all but stripped players naked in order to win the ball. Even Xavi sprinted at the goalkeeper to amp up the pressure.
The widely wished for early opening goal shook their foundations and the immediate harassment of any Italian with a football near his boots nearly caved their roof in. Nearly. Messi should have headed in his second after Abbiati pushed an Iniesta blast against the bar. The Milanese born goalkeeper tipped another long range effort from Xavi wide. And one of these days a penalty and red card will be given when the last defender bowls over Pedrito.
And yet, Milan withstood the storm. They were wildly splashing the water out of their canoe with the cups of their hands, but they withstood the storm. And they almost hit us with a lightning bolt of their own.
Not fazed by the rumbling warnings of Stephane El Sharaawy, who created plenty of space only to scream a whisper at Valdés, we dedicated more bodies to the attack. It was then that the attempt was made at the our achilles heel, the old high clearance straight over our backline. Niang left our defense for dead and then he murdered the post. That sweet and tender touch of Lady Luck on the side of your cheek sure feels comforting, doesn’t it?
Believe. Tonight is our night.
Because as so often in this game of ours, when one fails to “decide” the game on one end of the pitch, the decision falls on the other. Ghostface swooped in to take the ball off of Ambrosini and fed La Pulga, who did not hesitate to tie the tie. Up 2-0 in our house, and for a moment I remembered that same score in that same minute against a ten-man Chelsea last year. Could it be that doubt was creeping in my heart? Don’t take no risks, let’s make it to half time without conceding.
Two minutes into the second half Messi almost dribbled past the entire defense for what would have gone down as one of the great Champion League hat-tricks had his shot not lacked conviction. It mattered not. David Villa, who had spent the previous 55 minutes (quite effectively) playing as a decoy, received his first goal scoring opportunity. In the net you go. I must guiltily admit that I found the sight of Abbiati furiously kicking the air around him hilarious.*
Up by three. It took us 135 minutes to finally take the lead with the fifth goal of the tie. And yes, of course we had to soak up some pressure near the end of the game, as our opponents tried to go for the winner. Did I doubt? No. Did I believe? Yes. Was I scared out of my wits? Hell yes! I need not have been. We held up fine, not giving away any shots on goal and sealing the victory with what was perhaps our first counter goal of the season.
Some might say we finally got revenge for the lost European Cup final of 1994, when Capello’s Milan with three missing starters in their defense went all out on our Dream Team and whupped us 4-0. I say nonsense. That was a final, and this a second round clincher.
Others will say that we have proven the naysayers wrong. The ones gleefully prophesizing the demise of F.C. Barcelona. Nonsense also. We will have to prove that over the remainder of this season, and the next one.
Don’t forget that our defensive frailty almost cost us the tie. Had Milan equalized we would most likely not have gone on to score three more goals. Ninety awesome minutes of football should not distort the weaknesses that do exist in our team.
But neither are the critics right. Our team’s cycle is not over. That doesn’t mean we will necessarily win 3+ trophies per year like we did under Pep. As a matter of fact it is extremely unlikely that any team will repeat that four year trophy haul. But the nucleus is very much in place. As is the will to win.
Ens hi deixem la pell.
We will leave our skin on the pitch. Honestly? We have heard this phrase over and over. But I have never seen it quite like today. Not that literally. I have never seen our team fight so hard over 90 minutes. Not even during the treble season. And, more so than the scoreline, this is what makes me a believer.
Visca Barça! And thank you for a magical night!
“Isn’t this Barça team supposed to be in a slump and Messi struggling for form? F***ing papers! Full of sh*te!”
Joey Barton (Olympique de Marseille)
* Good keeper. He has very much impressed me every time we played him over the last two years, as has this young Milan team.