An own goal from ex-Barcelona player Mark Van Bommel followed by strikes from Lionel Messi and Xavi helped Barcelona to secure a vital 3-2 win against Italian giants AC Milan at the San Siro and claim top spot in UEFA Champions League Group H.
Despite both sides having already qualified, the game was dubbed as the most important clash in the group with both sides aware that three points would put them at the top of the table with the prospect of a potentially less-challenging tie in store for the knockout stages. Their previous encounter had ended in a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in September; the only goals that Barcelona has conceded in this year's competition.
The European holders opened the scoring in the 14th minute with their first meaningful attack of the game. Cesc Fàbregas found Lionel Messi on the edge of the box who cleverly picked out Seydou Keita, who had burst in space on the left-hand side of the penalty area. The Mali international drove the ball across the face of the six-yard box and the ball flashed into the net off the unfortunate shins of former Barcelona midfielder, Mark Van Bommel.
Fàbregas had a glorious opportunity to extend Barça's lead only moments later when he latched on to Thiago Alcantara's intelligent dinked pass but the former Arsenal playmaker could only shoot straight at the legs of Christian Abbiati.
Former Real Madrid attacker Robinho really should have reduced the arrears in the 19th minute but he somehow blazed over the bar from only a few yards out after the ball had been fizzed into him by Kevin Prince Boateng.
But AC Milan did equalise in the 20th minute when another former FC Barcelona player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, took advantage of some slack defending from the visitors. Alberto Aquilani's lofted ball found Clarence Seedorf, whose nudge towards Ibrahimovic was converted by the Swedish international through the legs of Victor Valdés. It was a wake-up call for Barcelona who had allowed Milan to respond well after going behind.
Lionel Messi then produced an almost carbon-copy of Robinho's miss when he somehow struck the top of the bar from only five yards out after Fàbregas's inviting low cross. But it would not be long until the Argentinian's name did appear on the scoresheet.
Fàbregas's delightful through pass was met by the onrushing Xavi but he was subsequently felled by Alquilani, who had already received a yellow card. The referee awarded the penalty but bizarrely produced a yellow card to defender Alessandro Nesta, sparing the blushes of his teammate who had incredibly avoided an early bath. Fortunately, it did not prove to be a game-changing decision. Messi stepped up to take the spotkick amid a vociferous chorus of whistling and dispatched the ball into the left-hand corner of the net after he had deceived the keeper with a shot faint. The Milan players were furious and the referee rightly awarded the set-piece to be retaken. Messi, unfazed, picked the ball up and slammed it past the dive of Abbiati into the opposite corner to give the Catalans a 2-1 lead heading into the half-time interval.
The second half continued with a pulsating repeat of the first-half with both sides knocking the ball around in free-flowing fashion, trying to unlock the opposing defence. And it did not take too long for the next goal to arrive; a magnificent solo-effort from Boateng drawing the sides back level.
The Ghana international seized upon a half-attempted clearance before performing an outrageous piece of skill to knock the ball past Abidal before firing in at Valdés's near post. It was a moment of brilliance by the AC midfielder but Valdés really should not have been beaten.
Barcelona refused to surrender their stronghold on the match though and regained the lead for a third and final time in the 63rd minute. Messi was once again at the heart of things, stringing an eye-of-the-needle pass into the path of the onrushing Xavi who finished in style, blasting the ball across Abbiati and into the far corner.
Chances were few and far between in the final 20 minutes as the referee brought an end to a thrilling Champions League match-up. Both sides progress to the next stage of the tournament along with Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Arsenal and Apoel Nicosia.
Barcelona host Belarussian minnows Bate Borisov at the Camp Nou on December 6th to finish their group stage campaign.