Barcelona look to Lionel Messi to sink challenge of AC Milan
Barcelona fans unfurled a huge flag before Saturday's home win over an exhausted Athletic Bilbao which stretched over two tiers.
"You are unique Leo," it read. "Grande!"
It was produced in honour of the world's best player recently becoming Barca's all-time leading scorer at just 24. Lionel Messi repaid the support with another goal against the Basques, his 56th in all competitions this season.
The Argentine returns to Camp Nou tonight, where his magic will be vital in the finely balanced Champions League quarter-final second leg against an AC Milan side who held the Catalans to a goalless draw in the San Siro.
It was the first time Barca had failed to score in a Champions League game for two and a half years, with Massimiliano Allegri's defenders tightly marking Barca's front men.
Messi's 12 goals in the competition this season match the record set by Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2002/03, although five of those came in one game against Bayer Leverkusen last month. Milan, the Serie A leaders, are superior to Leverkusen and Barca, the holders, are rightly wary.
Milan's great rivals Inter have provided the only blemish on Pep Guardiola's outstanding Champions League record since he took charge in 2008, while Milan are the only team to avoid defeat in European competition at Camp Nou this season following a 2-2 draw on the opening group stage day.
That game was watched by 96,641, the biggest crowd to see a football match in the world so far this season. Barca then won seven consecutive Champions League matches before being held to a 0-0 draw on the imperfect San Siro surface last week.
"We all believe that we can progress," said Pedro, the Barca winger who scored against Milan in September.
"But Milan has great players, they're a great team and they'll make things difficult for us. We may dominate the game, but you can never be overconfident, because at anytime they can score."
Barca are favourites to progress to a fifth successive semi-final where they will meet Chelsea or Benfica. The Catalans are the form team, their post-Christmas wobbles replaced with eight successive league wins and Guardiola's assertion that his side have "found their legs".
Madrid still lead the domestic title race by six points, but although there is a reluctance to say it publicly, Barca's primary aim is to become the first side since Milan two decades ago to retain the European Cup.
Messi is expected to be the main man and his task will be helped by the creativity of the team's second leading goalscorer Cesc Fabregas who missed the first leg.
While Milan are close to full strength, they will be without one of their former Barca players Mark van Bommel who has a back problem.
Another who is set to play and would delight in eliminating his old employers is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The outspoken Swede has scored 29 goals this season and has a point to prove.
He is still Barca's record signing, still agitated that he only lasted a season at Camp Nou and though he speaks well of Messi and Guardiola, he blames both for his earlier than expected departure in 2010.
He will be unfazed about the venue and huge crowd and history gives him hope.
Of the eight times that Milan have been held at home in the first leg of a European match, they have still progressed in six of those competitions.
And when they have been held 0-0 at home in the first leg, they have progressed on all four occasions.
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Published: April 3, 2012 04:00 AM