It seems something comes alive in Sergio Busquets when facing teams from Milan in the Champions League - for better or for worse.
For those passionate detractors who cannot see the Barcelona midfielder for anything other than a practitioner of football’s dark arks, and a plague on the game, his defining moment came against Inter Milan in April 2010 when he stopped rolling around long enough to take a sneaky peek and check whether his dramatic performance had earned Thiago Motta a red card. It had.
But for those who believe Busquets is one of the finest exponents of the midfield trade operating in football today, a talent who marries positional intuition with mastery in possession, a 4-0 victory over Milan last night could prove equally as decisive in forging a reputation.
Unsurprisingly, It was Lionel Messi who took the breath away with two great goals as Milan were brushed aside 4-0, Barcelona becoming the first team to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg without the aid of an away goal in Champions League history.
Messi’s grin will adorn newspapers across Catalunya and beyond this morning, and it was his face being photoshopped onto pictures of the Pope last night. Understandably so. Messi’s first strike after five minutes was one of the best you will see this season: a team goal as extravagantly knitted together as a cashmere jumper, with an even silkier finish.
It was another masterclass from a player who is the Barca poster boy; the star who launched a thousand marketing campaigns. No one personifies Barcelona’s otherworldly brilliance as he does. But praising Messi gets boring, and every Mes Que Un Club motto must have its Qatar Airways slogan. If Messi is Barcelona’s gleaming ideal, Busquets is their pragmatic bottom line.
Last night the midfielder was just supreme, at times treating the Champions League knockout tie as he might a game of five-a-side. His distribution of the ball was unerring, with only Xavi completing more than his 89 passes, and ambitious too, if you look at his role in Messi’s first goal again. It was his daring, probing pass that bisected two Milan players to set the Argentinian free and allow Messi to play a cute one-two with Xavi before side-footing the ball into the top corner on the half-volley. Easy.
But it wasn’t just Busquets's proactive passing that caught the eye – it was his match intelligence too. The Spain international corralled his midfield like a champion cowboy, disrupted Milan’s attacks with his high-tempo pressing, recovered the ball 13 times and recycled possession with the fervour of Al Gore.
This was a monumental midfield performance. Was it enough to change perceptions of a man that many football fans have marked down as a baddy? Perhaps not. After all, everyone loves a villain. But watching him dominate Milan – as adept in the shielding role as Claude Makelele, with the passing skills of Xavi – it was hard not to conclude that this was one of football’s most effective midfielders in action.
Then again, Busquets has been brilliant for years and he is still yet to win over great numbers of the general public. He is unlikely to enjoy the kind of PR bump that Barca as a whole will earn from this performance, as a season that looked set to go a touch off the rails is now firmly back on track.
There has been a lot written about the supposed decline of this team; no matter that they enjoy a 13-point lead in La Liga, you might have picked up an end of empire vibe from some quarters. Perhaps it was their inherent smugness as a club, but it seemed to ED there was no shortage of people ready to write their obituary.
As a riposte it could hardly have been more emphatic: at times this was vintage Barca, the team led by stand-in Jordi Roura approaching the stylistic standard set en route to winning the 2011 Champions League at Wembley.
It’s probably no surprise that Barcelona produced their biggest performance of the season when their front six from that 2010-11 season were used from the start for the first time this campaign: Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta behind Villa, Messi and Pedro. Without the unconsciously disruptive presence of Cesc Fabregas in midfield, Iniesta and Xavi were in perfect harmony.
Barca certainly seemed to have their pep back – if not their Pep – as they battered Milan to the point of mercilessness and threatened to send the Italians home with deep-rooted psychological trauma. Especially Kevin Constant, who put in a performance that suggested his presence in Milan’s best XI will be anything but.
Of course, it helped that Milan were largely terrible – their error-strewn performance coming to a comical conclusion when, having gestured for the centre-backs to come up for a late free-kick, Robinho instead took it short, allowing Barca to win the ball back, break rapidly and score a fourth through Jordi Alba.
As Barcelona tore Milan to shreds with seemingly sadistic glee, Early Doors couldn’t help but think of Omar taunting Wee-Bey in The Wire with the phrase “Come at the king, you best not miss.”
A 2-0 lead from the first leg, which was timed perfectly to exploit a rare slump in form for both Barca and Messi, rattled the cage, poked the hornet’s nest, exhausted the metaphors. They’d come at the kings in some style, but miss they did. No more so than M’Baye Niang, who saw a first-half shot sneak past Victor Valdes and strike the base of the post. On such margins...
At that point, Milan's belief evaporated. Inside 70 seconds, Messi had scored his second and that was pretty much that: a Barcelona victory was now almost certain. With Busquets in the form he was in, it became inevitable.
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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I have no interest in dividing up the skin before I kill the bear" – ED is still trying to decide whether Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes is being courteous to Arsenal by suggesting talk of German progress is premature, or insulting by comparing them to a large mammal that he expects to hunt, kill and skin.
STAT OF THE MILLENNIUM: “All 3 Barca's games during a papal conclave have ended 4-0: earlier 1958 vs Madrid | 1978 vs Las Palmas.” @2010misterchip on Twitter.
FOREIGN VIEW: The fines for racially abusing Mario Balotelli keep flying in thin and fast in Italy. For Genoa it’s a whopping 30,000 euros. Add that to the 50,000 euros Internazionale were fined last month for the same offence, and the 4,000 euros fine meted out to Juventus this week and you almost have enough money to fund Balotelli a week’s wages for the bother of being routinely racially abused every time he goes out to do his job in his home country.
COMING UP: It’s Arsenal’s turn to respond to a two-goal first-leg deficit with a 4-0 victory as they take on Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. Malaga are also aiming to come from behind, though their 1-0 loss to Porto in Portugal looks rather less insurmountable.