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The Catalans claimed a place in the semi-finals for a record fifth year in succession and thoroughly deserved to do so, despite a controversial penalty decision in the first half

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By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor

Conspiracy theorists can look away now.

On Tuesday night, Barcelona became the first team in Champions League history to reach the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition for the fifth year in succession. And it had nothing to do with luck.

Even Milan admitted it. Yes, Massimiliano Allegri questioned the second spot-kick awarded to Barca - as did Clarence Seedorf - for an Alessandro Nesta tug on Sergio Busquets after the Italian defender appeared to be fouled first by Carles Puyol. But both conceded that the Catalans had deserved to win, and few can argue with that assessment.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic might. The outspoken striker claimed he knew how Jose Mourinho felt at Camp Nou, alluding to the decisions going against his side, just as the Portuguese believes to be the case every time he returns to Catalunya. The Swede, however, has his own agenda, following a tumultuous time at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola.

The Blaugrana coach was unimpressed by his rival's rant. "Mr. Ibrahimovic can say what he likes," Pep responded in the press room. "Now he is making friends with Mourinho. But on the pitch, in the moment of truth, is where he has to speak. They were both penalties."

In addition, the Barca boss remembered the first leg, when his side were denied two possible penalties (one for a clear foul by goalkeeper Christian Abbiati on Alexis Sanchez), while he also pointed out that at Camp Nou, the Catalans had shot at goal 21 times, compared to the visitors' three efforts. It was a damning statistic.


Crossing the line | Ibrahimovic's comments were borne of frustration

There can be little argument. On the face of it, the two penalties appear crucial and they certainly aided the Barca cause, but without them the Catalans controlled a one-sided game and surely would have done enough to claim a place in the semi-finals anyway - even without the referee's assistance.

Barca have been criticised before for having benefited from decisions by match officials, but it is usually their pressure and positivity which leads to such calls in the first place and, as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave.

No team reaches the final four of the continent's most prestigious competition for the fifth successive season merely by chance. Barca surpassed a Champions League record they previously shared with Juventus and Madrid as they made it five times in the semi-finals since losing to Liverpool in the last 16 back in 2007 ... which seems a long, long time ago now.

Mr. Ibrahimovic can say what he likes. Now he is making friends with Mourinho. But on the pitch, in the moment of truth, is where he has to speak. They were both penalties

- Guardiola hits back at Ibrahimovic

The following season, the Catalans - who were still coached by Frank Rijkaard - lost out to Manchester United in the last four, before claiming the cup in Guardiola's debut season in 2008-09 with victory over the same side. They then lost out to Mourinho's Inter in the semi-finals a year later before sealing a second success in three seasons as they defeated the Red Devils once more in a famous final in 2011 at Wembley, scene of their maiden European Cup victory in 1992.

That was the last trophy handed out in the pre-Champions League era, before the competition was rebranded as the showpiece we know today. And some 20 years on, no team has been able to defend their crown the following campaign.

AC Milan were the last team to do so, in 1989 and 1990, but this brilliant Barca side look capable of emulating and even surpassing Arrigo Sacchi's spectacular ensemble, while another Rossoneri record, the all-time mark of 14 goals in a European season set by their legendary forward Jose Altafini in 1962-63, was levelled by Lionel Messi on Tuesday as the Argentine converted twice from the spot.

So forget the conspiracy theories. The universe may indeed by conspiring to make this Barca team the finest football force in the modern era, but that's only because they deserve it - just like they did on Tuesday.

Follow Ben Hayward on 
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