Soccer-Wounded Barca need rapid recovery before Milan clash

MADRID, March 2 Sat Mar 2, 2013 7:52pm GMT

MADRID, March 2 (Reuters) - Barcelona face a daunting task to overcome AC Milan in the Champions League this month and must quickly recover their form after being dumped out of the King's Cup and beaten in La Liga by Real Madrid in five days.

Although Barca still have a 12-point lead in the Spanish league, they have stuttered at a crucial point in the season and losing to Real is not the way to prepare for the visit of Milan, who hold a 2-0 lead, in the last 16, second leg tie on March 12.

Barcelona have lost their way without coach Tito Vilanova, who is in New York recovering from a December throat operation, and recent performances have been littered with defensive errors and marked by an uncharacteristic lack of cutting edge up front.

Failure against Milan would end Barca's bid for a third Champions League crown in five years and leave them facing a disappointing end to the season by their high standards.

Barcelona's 2-1 La Liga defeat at Real on Saturday was the fifth 'Clasico' in a row that they have failed to beat Jose Mourinho's side, who clearly have the measure of the Catalans having won three and drawn two of those last five meetings.

Real humiliated Barca at the Nou Camp in Tuesday's King's Cup semi-final second leg, opening a three-goal lead before Jordi Alba's late strike for the hosts as the 2011 winners eliminated the holders 4-2 on aggregate.

Real's recent domination is a significant turnaround from Mourinho's early days in Spain when Barca were close to unbeatable under Pep Guardiola.

The Portuguese coach's record against the Catalans since he joined Real from Inter Milan is five wins, six draws and six defeats in 17 official matches. A 5-0 thrashing at the Nou Camp in 2010 during his first season in charge is a distant memory.

The form of Barca's World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has also dipped in recent weeks although he did score his 18th goal in 25 'Clasico' appearances on Saturday, equalling the record set by Real great Alfredo Di Stefano.

With some of Messi's team mates underperforming and failing to provide him with the impeccable service he is used to, it would be unfair to blame him alone for Barca's woes.

PAINFUL DEFEATS

That the Argentine is singled out is a measure of how much Barca rely on him. His strike at the Bernabeu marked the 16th straight La Liga match in which he has scored, his 39th league goal of the season and his 50th in all competitions.

Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta sought to put a positive spin on the two painful defeats by Real and the 2-0 reverse at Milan in last month's Champions League first leg.

Barca's closest La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid, who have 56 points, visit fourth-placed Malaga (42) on Sunday (1800 GMT), with champions Real now a point behind Atletico in third.

"We are very well placed in this competition and from now on we will try to get over our circumstances and problems with hard work," Zubizarreta told Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.

"We are a club who are used to difficulties and dealing with tough moments," added the former Barca and Spain goalkeeper.

"We will not give up, we won't throw in the towel, we will compete and trust in our playing system and we have faith in our ideas.

"Nobody would expect to win every game and always play brilliantly but it's at moments like these when we have to support each other and get through the situation.

"That's what we will do and that's what we have always done, when we have played brilliantly and when things haven't been going that well." (Editing by Ken Ferris)