Zac Lee Rigg: Barcelona's comeback among the greatest in Champions League history

The two greatest second-leg comebacks in Champions League history have both come at the expense of AC Milan, with Barcelona's providing the latest on Tuesday.
Diario Sport can go ahead and just reprint its cover from Monday. Ahead of the Barcelona–Milan second leg, the Barcelona-based and -biased Spanish paper had the phrase "The comeback is possible" printed 19 times in decreasing font size on the front. "Comeback" (remontada) was hashtagged. The revolution will go viral.

AC Milan has surrendered the two biggest second-leg comebacks in UEFA Champions League history (in addition to the 2005 Champions League final collapse to Liverpool). In 2004, Deportivo La Coruna overcome a 4-1 opening leg defeat to advance, winning the second leg 4-0.

Until Tuesday, no team had ever come back from a two-goal deficit without the help of an away goal. Now Barcelona has. A heady 4-0 win at home in the second leg, in front of nearly 95,000 at the Camp Nou, helps erase Barca's slump. If the tiki-taka obituaries are already written, they'll remain in unopened Word documents, unsent to editors, for now.

"On nights like this, everybody forgets all the negative things, the personal things," David Villa told Spanish television channel La 1.

Villa rejoined the starting lineup at the expense of Cesc Fabregas. Villa was marginal, only making 11 passes, the fewest of Barcelona's starters (even Victor Valdes had 13). But he scored the watershed third goal (note the catharsis in the celebration) and, perhaps more importantly, helped distract defenders from Lionel Messi.

For the first time this season the classic Barcelona front six from 2011 – Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Villa, Messi and Pedro – started. (Busquets lined up in defense for the one match that featured all six from the beginning, against Celta de Vigo in November.)

"Tonight we returned to our origins," Mascherano told Barça TV. "It's been a while since we played like this."

The trouble with Fabregas – an undoubtedly tremendous player – is that he travels in the same areas as Iniesta. (Note: Two players led Barcelona with five tackles: Mascherano and Iniesta.) With Villa thrusting forward with his runs, and Pedro (left) and Dani Alves (right) stretching the Italian backline horizontally, Messi found enough space to remind humans that he lives among them, but is not of them.

With his 57th and 58th Champions League goals, Messi overtook Ruud van Nistelrooy (56) on the all-time scoring list. Only Raul (71) is ahead of the 25-year-old Argentine.

The Catalans spent 36 percent of the match in Milan's third, an uptick from 29 percent in the first leg. (Stats courtesy of Opta, via Who Scored.) Barcelona's average pass streak, six, doubled Milan's. With 67 percent of possession and an 88 percent pass completion rate, Barca's dominance again leaned heavily on Xavi. The midfielder played with pain medication and still had two assists and 125 passes, at 90 percent accuracy. His 136 touches nearly doubled Riccardo Montolivo, who led Milan with 71.

"We must to stay this way for the next matches, with this intensity," Jordi Alba told TV3.

Barcelona's intensity and precision dipped substantially in February. From Jan. 30 through March 2, it lost three and drew two of eight. Two of those losses came back-to-back to Real Madrid, one knocking the club out of the Copa del Rey.

The absence of head coach Tito Vilanova to cancer treatment in New York hasn't helped. Neither has a fitness regimen designed to peak in the last months of the season after a winter dip. Individual loss of form compounded the situation.

Alba's performance on Tuesday might have signaled the end of an atrocious personal streak of form. Milan once again targeted the left back. This time, deployed much more conservatively, Alba helped redeem his first leg performance, making four interceptions and finding the energy to scamper up the field and score the clinching fourth.

The last goal eased the tension – has any other 4-0 demolition felt quite as tense? – and gave Barcelona a buffer. Until then, an away goal would have sent Milan through. Margins were always '70s jeans tight. Things might have gone drastically differently had Messi not scored two hammer-thwack early goals, the second through the legs of Philippe Mexes. Or if M'Baye Niang – only playing because Giampaolo Pazzini fractured his fibula this weekend – didn't hit the post. But Barcelona walked the tightrope and now advances to its sixth straight Champions League quarterfinal, the longest active streak.

"It was harder than the first leg," Niang told beIN Sport. "You get the impression that there are 22 of them."

In other words, Barcelona rolled back its form to that of recent history.

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