Barcelona emphatically underlined why many regard them as the best and most entertaining side in the world in their semi-final with Atlante. The European champions found themselves at an early deficit, but an exquisite performance was rewarded with a 3-1 victory and a date with Estudiantes in Saturday’s decider.
Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, who performed exceptionally following his 53rd-minute introduction, and Pedro were on target for Barça, following Guillermo Rojas’s surprise opener for the Cancun outfit. Atlante will now face Pohang Steelers in the third-place play-off.
Barcelona immediately began to showcase their inimitable, pass-and-move football. Three minutes in, that style conjured up the first opportunity for Busquets, who shot tamely wide from the edge of the box.
However, the reigning European champions were stunned on five minutes. Rojas beat goalkeeper Victor Valdes to a long ball and clipped the ball over the Barça No1. The diminutive playmaker still had significant work to do, as the ball was heading out for a goal-kick, but, from an acute angle, he managed to flick the ball into the empty net with his outstretched leg.
Pep Guardiola’s troops charged up the other end and from a Xavi corner, Busquets' header forced Federico Vilar into a smart save. Atlante then broke menacingly down the right, but Fernando Navarro’s end product failed to validate his admirable build-up play.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic came close to creating a chance for himself after tricking two opponents exquisitely, while Xavi also drew gasps from the pro-Barcelona crowd by side-stepping a pair of adversaries.
Luis Velasquez earned his plaudits on 20 minutes, heading a 20th-minute Andres Iniesta cross destined for Ibrahimovic out for the corner, which came to nothing. The Swedish striker was troubling Atlante. With 22 minutes gone, he muscled Vilar off the ball outside of the penalty area and chipped it towards the unmanned goal. However, with no support, a comfortable clearance was made.
Iniesta tried his luck on 25 minutes and the midfielder’s powerful, swerving effort was only narrowly off target. Ibrahimovic followed suit seven minutes later, sending a dipping free-kick just over the bar.
Finally, the Barcelona onslaught reaped a reward ten minutes before the break. Xavi’s corner was flicked on by the head of Yaya Toure, and Busquets scrambled home the loose ball. The crowd in Abu Dhabi duly went wild.
Another sweeping Barça move almost resulted in a goal just before half-time. However, after hurtling into the Mexicans’ area, Dani Alves fired into the side-netting. An engrossing first 45 was brought to a close thereafter. Barcelona had dazzled but the game was still in the balance.
The Catalan giants started the second half as they ended the first: dominating possession and attacking at every opportunity. Velasquez was doing his utmost to keep them at bay.
Pedro played a delightful one-two with Xavi near the byline, but just failed to keep the ball in play. Then the crowd erupted: Lionel Messi jogged on to the field to replace Toure.
The Argentinian took less than two minutes to adhere to the script his adoring followers had imagined. Taking a clever reverse pass from Ibrahimovic in his stride, he skipped away from his marker, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home to provoke deafening noise inside the Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Messi was heavily involved in the ensuing ten minutes. His lightning feet earned two free-kicks, the latter of which Xavi curled on to the head of Ibrahimovic, whose dangerous cut-back forced Atlante to concede a corner.
The UEFA Champions League holders put the game out of their CONCACAF counterparts reach on 67 minutes. Iniesta jinked his way into the Atlante 18-yard box and craftily slipped the ball through to the unmarked Pedro, who finished calmly.
A superb Xavi pass presented Ibrahimovic with a chance soon afterwards, but he wasted his effort.
The last 20 minutes were all about Barcelona warming themselves to a thrilled audience. Messi and Ibrahimovic showcased their vast array of party pieces, and the latter also scored with a stunning strike from distance. Pedro also came close to adding to the Spaniards’ cushion.
As it transpired, 3-1 was how it finished – a result that, in truth, flattered the brave Mexicans. If this Barcelona master class was anything to go by, Estudiantes face an uphill battle on Saturday.