On Tuesday night, Barcelona booked their place in a fifth consecutive Champions League semi-final berth with a rather comfortable 3-1 win over AC Milan in the Nou Camp. Lionel Messi scored twice from the penalty spot, either side of Alberto Nocerino’s slide-finish for Milan, while Andres Iniesta finished it off emphatically just after half time.
It was all rather straight-forward for Barcelona who look ominous in the way that Pep Guardiola could turn to his bench to bring Isaac Cuenca in to provide width against Milan’s narrow unit that had stifled the Catalan machine in the San Siro last Wednesday. Guardiola has at his disposal a wealth of options the envy of World football, bar possibly only Real Madrid, and once their imposing system slips into the fine mechanics of cohesion, it is difficult to stop.
But as the Catalan juggernaut were busy strolling into the reaches of the semi-finals once more, many people were entering into the social-networking sphere of Twitter to tell the World of how they also enlist the help of referees and officials to achieve such unprecedented success. This argument centred around the second penalty and Alessandro Nesta’s shirt-pull on Sergio Busquets which gave Messi the platform to cancel out Milan’s equaliser. By the letter of the law, shirt-pulling is illegal and it was refreshing to see a referee, more specifically Dutchman Bjorn Kuipers, punish the offence with a penalty. Yes, it is a common infringement and one that may see a dozen penalties per game, but it is long since officials have needed to get tough on this type of foul.
Onlookers were too busy setting their agenda to preach of a paranoid setting in which Barcelona’s dominance comes at the mercy of the dark halls of UEFA to see that however. According to them, there is a notion where match-officials, as ludicrous as this may sound, are given special instruction to run the match in favour of the Catalan giants by European football’s governing body.
Milan players were also incensed; headlined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s “disgust” at the referee; the Swede went on to say “it ruined the game. I still don't understand what he whistled. If he calls those he should call the others. Without him the game would have been 50-50." Milan’s coach Massimo Allegri also laid into Kuipers and his officiating team, "We gifted them one penalty and the other was almost a gift from the referee … Playing Barça is never easy”, duly stoking the conspiracy fire that was already burning through the words of the on-looking public.
There was little mention of Allegri’s incorrect tactics over this two legged tie, in which instructing his team to sit narrow and stifle Barcelona at home (admittedly the Robinho and Ibrahimovic misses were both costly) but an overall lack of ambition meant that, unlike Inter Milan two years ago where speed and power in the counter attack gave Jose Mourinho’s team a 3-1 lead to defend in Catalonia, the Rossaneri had to travel to Spain with absolutely nothing to hold onto. Did Allegri stick or twist knowing he needed a goal? In the end he did neither but his costly mistakes were ignored in favour of some misguided debate on refereeing favouritism. What Allegri and Ibrahimovic are forgetting here is the basic fact that both penalty decisions were correct, Alessandro Nesta showed unbelievable naivety which betrayed his 14 years at the very top level to pull at Busquets to bring him down, yet why consider that when you can pummel a referee?
Milan showed little ambition over 180 minutes of this Champions League tie and duly paid for it in the face of some intricate expansive football that embodies the Barcelona philosophy. The home side hit 19 shots to Milan’s 3 in the Nou Camp and they bossed possession on 62% to 38%, slightly less than the 65% to 35% ratio Guardiola’s team enjoyed in the San Siro. Barcelona were quite comfortably the better team over both legs but for some bad finishing, the score-line remained respectable. Yet, as some would have you believe, the advantage all came down to one decision, one that the referee got right.
Those harking conspiracy will point back to the debacle of the Chelsea, due to set-up another last-four tie with their rivals, semi-final back in 2009 for the most prescient case. Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack were punished for infamously expressing their outrage at a refereeing performance that denied them four clear penalty decisions as Chelsea were knocked out by Andres Iniesta’s last minute equaliser. But what is conveniently forgotten is that Barca had to complete the last half hour of the game with ten men after Eric Abidal was contentiously dismissed for Nicolas Anelka’s self-trip when clean through on goal. Tom Henning Ovrebo’s performance was notoriously grotesquely inept but it weighed in disfavour of both sides, whilst Chelsea had ample chances to put the tie to bed but wasted them all, before the heart-breaking events of the final seconds.
But it was Ovrebo alone that cost Chelsea and put Barcelona in the final, just as nobody remembers the events of the semi-final with Internazionale a year later. A quick search of the internet will show a whole host of wrong decisions given against Barcelona to destroy the most pro-conspiratorial agenda, but it was this particular tie against Jose Mourinho’s Nerazzurri that sticks the most pertinent in the memory. Diego Milito was handed the benefit of a dubious offside call to head Inter a valuable goal in the home tie, before an immense defensive effort in the Nou Camp, forced by Thiago Motta’s early dismissal, should have been ruled irrelevant by Bojan’s last minute strike that was wrongly denied by a Yaya Toure “handball” in the build-up. Even events as recent as last Wednesday in Milan are ignored, when Christian Abbiati hauled down Alexis Sanchez to a general consensus cry of “penalty!” all in favour of some delirious paranoia that UEFA assist Barcelona’s progression through their premier competition in a deliberate ploy to sell shirts and reap the profits.
While Barcelona average 65% possession throughout each game they play, dominated by nimble, technically gifted footballers and the divine talent of Lionel Messi who constantly continues to smash records with every passing game he plays, they will inevitably draw more free-kicks and penalties than the other team who are drawn into silly fouls through the amount of time they spend without the ball. But don’t let rational thought skew your view of Barcelona’s natural talent and unrivalled dominance as many easily-led individual will have you believe, they are assisted by referees and will never be beaten as long as a black-shirted man stands in the centre of the pitch in the pocket of UEFA.
That concept is nearly outlandish as Lionel Messi’s talent.