By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The atmosphere was electric. Tuesday's Camp Nou crowd cheered as Barcelona served up one of their greatest European nights, an extraordinary comeback to overcome AC Milan and make the boldest of statements: This team is far from finished yet.
Great sides are judged by the highest of benchmarks, and Barcelona's special standards slipped in recent weeks, with the Catalans twice beaten by Real Madrid and losing the first leg of their last-16 tie with Milan at San Siro in the Champions League. Having gone out of the Copa del Rey, they were now faced with an embarrassing European exit, too.
But it was the nature of those defeats which had disappointed the most and left the world wondering whether this team would ever be the same again. Tactically naive, defensively vulnerable, physically spent and lacking leadership, this was a pale shadow of the side which had been the best there was for four fantastic years under Pep Guardiola.
On Tuesday, though, the demeanours disappeared. Barcelona were back to their breathtaking best. Interim coach Jordi Roura, in close consultation with recuperating Tito Vilanova, got it just right and on this form, very few sides can live with the Catalans.
|POSSIBLE QUARTER-FINAL OPPONENTS
| Bayern Munich or Arsenal
Porto or Malaga
Villa's deployment further forward saw Milan's defence stretched in a way it had not been in Italy two weeks before and meant Philippe Mexes was unable to come good on his pre-match promise of pursuing Messi for the entire 90 minutes.
And after Niang had hit the post for the visitors in a breakaway move which could have changed everything, Messi made it 2-0 with another superb strike before half-time.
It was that goal which summed up just what Barca had been doing right on the night as Andres Iniesta, of all people, dropped deep to win the ball back and start the attack which saw him feed Messi for the tie's leveller.
Barcelona's pressing is one of the keys to the side's success in recent seasons, yet it had been noticeably absent from their last few games. On Tuesday, however, they pressed persistently. Xavi had been eased back to fitness following his injury, while many more were rested at the weekend. It showed. Barcelona were faster, fitter and fresher than they had looked for some time and Sergio Busquets, in particular, won the ball back tirelessly for the Catalans.
Villa's strike 10 minutes into the second half following Xavi's pinpoint pass gave Barca the lead in the tie for the first time, but there was still some nervous tension at Camp Nou because a Milan goal would have seen them through, and Massimiliano Allegri's side came close in the final minutes before Jordi Alba's goal in added time clinched a famous victory for the home team.
Alba had been instructed to stay back in a more defensive role as Dani Alves attacked almost as a fourth forward, and the Spain full-back stuck to his task to tuck in as a third central defender for most of the game. His only realy foray forward was to net the clincher, rounding off a 4-0 win on an excellent night for the Blaugrana.
Tactically, Barca had been spot on and all the hunger and desire returned in one memorable match. Now, nobody will want to face the Catalans in the last eight of the competition, because on this form, they look like the team which won 14 trophies out of 19 under Guardiola.
That brilliant Barcelona is back. And in less than two weeks, Vilanova returns too from his cancer treatment. So as the Champions League reaches its business end, the news is bright for the Blaugrana - and a little bit darker for all of the other remaining teams in the competition. End of an era? Not on Tuesday's evidence.
Follow Ben Hayward on