It finished Barcelona 6-1 Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou as the Spanish La Liga outfit’s dream of a legendary UEFA Champions League last-16 second-leg fightback came true in arguably the most dramatic of fashions ever seen in football. It was madness.
Two goals in the opening 20 minutes saw Luis Enrique’s men halve the original aggregate deficit through an early Luis Suarez header and an unfortunate Layvin Kurzawa own-goal from an Andres Iniesta back-heeled cutback.
A third from Lionel Messi via the penalty spot was dampened by a strike from Edinson Cavani following the restart. But an astonishing flurry of three more goals in the last seven minutes would seal the comeback – two exquisite dead-ball strikes from Neymar Jr. and a last-gasp winner from Sergi Roberto to send the home fans into delirium.
Check out our tactical analysis of how the extraordinary game panned out the way it did.
#1 Barca’s high press pays dividends on the night
From the outset, it was clear that Barcelona were intent on playing Cava football, producing copious amounts of fizzing footwork and elegant movement that had the away side dizzy with concentration against the metronomic midfield play.
It took PSG a good 25 minutes before they saw any substantial time on the ball, and that only amounted to a misplaced Blaise Matuidi pass 15 yards outside the Barca 18-yard box which the hosts were able to gather and swarm forward with. It was rinse and repeat stuff for the La Liga giants for much of the opening 45 as they attacked, were repelled, but quickly won the ball back and mounted assault after assault.
It was a common sight to see the Barca’s defence camped 45 yards from Kevin Trapp’s goal.
With the play bunched tightly and not a lot of room to play in, Barca had to be inventive with their offensive play – they were forced to take risks by playing intricate stuff on the edge of the box, often risking an interception and counter attack. But PSG – inexplicably – just didn’t look like they wanted to get on the ball and seemed content to sit back and attempt, horrendously, to soak up the pressure.
PSG completed just FOUR passes between the 85th minute and full-time.THREE of those were from kick-off after conceding Barcelona goals. pic.twitter.com/G0odu6jhjj— James McManus (@JamesMcManus1) March 8, 2017
Some will say that Enrique’s troops had no choice but to shift high up the pitch as they were beckoned into it, but that would ignore the fact they hunted in packs all across the pitch, exhibiting a work-rate that has often been lacking in their play at crucial times this season. They literally played as a team, with defenders attacking, attackers defending, midfielders controlling and everything in between.
Not even the few counter attacks mustered by PSG could disrupt their flow as Cavani hit the post and Angel Di Maria fluffed his lines when one-on-one with Ter Stegen.
It was football of the highest order and the whole squad and the manager should be given credit for setting out their stall to get up close and personal with their opponents.
#2 Hosts were unafraid to play balls over the top
With Unai Emery’s charges sitting so deep, it might have seemed counter-intuitive to attempt to ping balls in over the top as there wasn’t much room between the last defender and the byline, but it wound up making perfect sense in the end.
When they couldn’t stretch the Ligue 1’s defence by switching play to-and-fro from either flank, they produced little dinks in over the top, or sometimes even opted to hoof precise balls from deep when the PSG rearguard was out of shape and stepping up.
It paid dividends in the 40th minute when a hopeful lofted through ball was directed into the path of Andres Iniesta. But even with a seemingly lost cause of a ball bouncing toward the end line, the 31-year-old worked hard to get around his man before backheeling into the group of bodies huddled inside the six-yard box, getting a deflection off Kurzawa.
It was a lucky break in many ways, but highlighted the spirit of the Catalans to never give up, a trait that served them well even when they desperately needed three goals with seven minutes to go.
Plus, as highlighted by football statistician Michael Caley, the 2015 UCL winners were rewarded for their continual creation of chances:
xG map for Barcelona - PSG.someday, people will seek to explain the events we just witnessed. they will fail. pic.twitter.com/XHvNxnTzGA— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 8, 2017
Undoubtedly the best example of Barca’s desire to clip balls in over the defence came in the dying embers of the game. Where lesser teams would have panicked, fired a wayward shot at goal or hit a misplaced pass, the hosts stood up to the challenge, and it was Neymar in particular who held his nerve to chip a delectable cross into the path of Roberto whose outstretched leg directed the ball into the back of the net.
It was a fairytale ending, but the fact the goal came via a route they had tried several times over the course fo the game’s 90-plus minutes was no coincidence. They knew where to hit PSG, what their weak points were and how to do it. Their homework paid off.
#3 Catalans used the width expertly
The Camp Nou is always an intimidating venue to visit for even the most talented of teams, but it’s also an energy-sapping arena to play in, in terms of how vast the playing surface truly is.
Barcelona were wise to look to use that as an advantage as best they could in the early exchanges as they took the tie by the scruff of the neck, spreading the play wide and fast every chance they could. It wasn’t simply for the opportunity to create crosses either because they also fashioned their fair share of shots from out wide.
In the 17th minute, Neymar Jr. came literally millimetres away from doubling his team’s lead with a scorcher of an effort from wide on the left, about 45 yards from goal, and that was a channel they attempted to exploit time and again. Typically, in the 28th minute, Andres Iniesta produced a similar effort from an almost identical position, out wide on the left wing that sailed fractionally over the crossbar.
PSG clearly attempted to combat the natural space of the pitch by reducing the area the game was placed with their deep shape, but although it could have worked in theory, the execution of it was pure tragicomedy as Thiago Silva and company failed to provide even the most basic of defensive cover when needed.
There was also the issue of ill discipline from the guests – Thomas Meunier’s blatant foul to gift the first penalty of the night was characteristic of that.Published 09 Mar 2017, 08:22 IST