Threesome of knowledge: As Milan step back, Barça’s Big Three step up

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We may be used to Barcelona putting up lopsided results at home, but this one was different. Not only was it historic (no team had overturned a 2-0 deficit after the first leg in Champions League ), it cast doubts on the notion that Barcelona had somehow been found out. Four-goal wins have a way of changing conventional wisdom.

Now the idea of a regressing Barcelona needs to be reconsidered. Coming into today’s match, losses to Milan and Real Madrid (twice) gave the impression the Blaugrana were slipping, but after resoundingly vindicating of one of those loses, Barcelona offered another explanation. Perhaps this team is just particularly vulnerable to Real Madrid, a club that has spent years and millions tailoring their squad to beat the Catalans.

Against the rest of Europe, Barcelona may be as powerful as every. At least, today’s performance forces us to consider the possibility.

Also worth consideration, these three bits of knowledge from today’s match:

Barcelona’s Big Three were much improved

It’s rare that Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández simultaneously underperform, but that’s what happened three weeks ago. On Tuesday, they rebounded, and then some.

Iniesta’s first leg was criticized as being particularly out-of-character for one of Europe’s best midfielder. Then, he was playing on the left side of the attacking three, a position that allowed Kevin Prince-Boateng to cut off passing lanes from midfield to his position. The result: an ineffectual performance.

Today, Iniesta was back in midfield, where his presence played a crucial part in the second and third goals. With an additional creator in the middle of the park, Barcelona were also able to liberate Xavi, whose impact closer to the forward line paid dividends on Messi’s opening goal.

As for Messi, we played that tuned earlier. And a bit earlier than that. The world’s best player lived up to that title today.

Milan’s own act too hard to follow

The Milan team that showed up on Tuesday was completely different from the one we saw at the San Siro. Sure, they set up roughly the same, but the intensity level was noticeably lower. They looked like a unaccomplished team that’d been given three weeks to dwell on unexpected success. None of the sacrifice we saw in the first leg result carried over to leg two.

The effects manifested in subtle ways. Their counterattack was far less dangerous. There was less urgency in playing long balls; specifically, in trying to find Stephan El Shaarawy behind Daniel Alves. The space between the midfield and defense seemed greater, and their fullbacks were either inconsistent (Ignazio Abate) or outright bad (Kevin Constant). Four-nil was a deserved result.

We’re left asking if Milan were ever capable of replicating their San Siro performance. Was that a one-time effort from a young team that never realized they were playing beyond themselves? Or is that a performance Max Allegri should have been able to replicate in leg two?

Given only Real Madrid’s been able to consistently match Barcelona, one-time effort seems to be the answer. Milan put on a clinic in Italy, but it may have been too much to expect them to take their practice to the Nou Camp.

Barcelona back among the favorites

This is where my analysis may go too far, my conclusions about Barcelona’s place in Europe resting on the assumption that their recent downturn was a blip, not a trend. Again, four-goal wins have a way of changing conventional wisdom.

But if Barcelona really is a team capable of posting 4-0 results in Europe — the team we assumed they were before their recent downturn — then we’re back to having co-favorites in Champions League. Bayern Munich has proven to be the class of UEFA, but until they’re on the same field as Barça and have to deal their possession-hogging style, we don’t know if Bayern will unable to cope. They may prove another version of the 2010-11 Manchester United, a squad whose chances may have been overrated based on Barcelona fatigue.

Ultimately, today’s performance was only one game. It’s 90 minutes of good soccer that stands in stark contrast to three weeks’ struggles. It’s hasty to think one 4-0 outweighs three telling defeats.

Instead of saying Barcelona has regained their favored status, better to put them among the favorites. Let’s let the coming weeks say if this was Barça’s greatness or Milan’s faults.