BARCELONA’S MIDWEEK 6-1 win over PSG in the Champions League round of 16 was nothing short of incredible.
It was, at least statistically, the greatest comeback in the history of European football — no team in the Champions League or European Cup had ever before recovered from a four-goal first-leg deficit.
Exactly how and why it happened is impossible to adequately summarise briefly, and with that in mind, we’ve taken an in-depth look at those crazy last few minutes below.
The turning point in the match
Right up until the dying moments, most viewers assumed PSG striker Edinson Cavani’s clinical finish in the 62nd minute was the match’s defining moment. It made the score on the night 3-1 to Barca, with the Catalan side subsequently needing three goals in the final half hour in order to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight, it’s now obvious that the most crucial incident in the match occurred in the 85th minute.
Just before Barca’s incredible scoring spree, PSG attacker Angel Di Maria had a glorious chance to win the game, when the visitors broke on the counter-attack and the Argentine international was played through on goal.
Yet with the goal at his mercy, Di Maria fluffed his lines, sending the effort wide. He was not helped, it must be said, by Javier Mascherano fouling him as he shot.
The PSG bench were clearly aggrieved at the penalty not being given as a result, and rightfully so — even Mascherano admitted afterwards that he had impeded his opponent.
The moment emphasises that, in order to pull off the greatest Champions League comeback of all time against a side as talented as PSG, you need substantial luck, and Barcelona certainly received plenty of it.
Even at 3-0, there was a case to be made that the scoreline flattered the hosts slightly — yes, they dominated territory and possession (according to the BBC’s stats, they had 71% of the latter overall), but they looked well below their best and by the 78th minute, they had only one more shot on target than the reigning French champions (four to PSG’s three).
Why PSG lost
Looking at Barca’s three late goals in isolation, the widespread suggestions that PSG ‘collapsed’ in the final minutes may seem somewhat harsh.
After all, they were undone by a moment of brilliance from Neymar from which they could do little to stop, a poor decision by the referee in awarding a penalty after a blatant Luis Suarez dive and an individual error by Serge Aurier in ball-watching and failing to track Sergi Roberto’s run for the sixth goal.
Yet, by examining the game in a more clinical fashion, it becomes obvious that PSG’s mentality was wrong from the outset. In the game’s aftermath, pre-match footage emerged of Blaise Matuidi and Julian Draxler saying that they would be content with losing 5-1 at the Camp Nou and still qualifying for the quarter-finals. This video would never have been highlighted if PSG had progressed, and the players in question may have said those words in an innocuous, light-hearted, throwaway fashion, but even joking about the possibility of a thrashing is something footballers should never even contemplate. It suggested they would accept defeat, something an elite player should never even hint at.
And it would be no surprise if some PSG players did genuinely think in those terms, given the manner in which they played the match.
PSG boss Unai Emery too deserves his share of the blame. Having scored two stunning goals in the first leg, star attacker Angel Di Maria was left on the bench at the Nou Camp. That decision alone is sending a message to the players, and effectively amounts to telling them that they’re not good enough to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou, with shutting up shop the only alternative option. This losing mentality cost PSG dearly in the end.
In elite football, during moments of high pressure, it is only then when the great players distinguish themselves, while flawed, temperamentally suspect footballers buckle and hide. Both these things happened on Wednesday night.
As stated above, the goals alone were somewhat unfortunate from the visitors’ perspective. What is unforgiveable, though, is the general manner in which PSG approached the final few minutes.
What teams under the cosh badly need to see a game out in the dying minutes is a midfielder getting on the ball and playing sensible passes. Roy Keane routinely did this in his Manchester United days, constantly demanding the ball from teammates and ensuring his passes always found a teammate. The clips below are a good example from a Liverpool-United match — notice how often he gets the ball in the final few minutes and how rarely he gives it away.Source: WeWatchFootball/YouTube
On Wednesday night, PSG simply didn’t have a player who was willing to dictate the play or relieve the pressure in anyway. Their defence has understandably received plenty of flak for the six goals conceded, but the midfield were equally culpable, even if their mistakes were not as obvious.
The same players who were excellent in the first leg wilted at the Camp Nou. Of their three central midfielders, Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti are 21 and 24 respectively, and they played like kids rather than hardened veterans. The more experienced of the trio, Blaise Matuidi (29), also disappeared when his team needed him most.
Consequently, PSG’s pathetic collapse was just as spectacular as Barca’s phenomenal resilience. Their ineptitude can perhaps best be described by the reaction to the first two late goals. Instead of keeping hold of possession and killing the game, they panic and give the ball straight back to Barcelona on both occasions right from kick-off (see below).
Some people assume courage in football is solely a reference to players going in for brave headers or not shirking a 50:50 challenge, but it equally applies to individuals showing for the ball when a team is under the cosh. This quality was patently lacking in PSG’s play and their inadequacies were epitomised by the stat below.
Neymar begins the revolutionSource: SportLife/YouTube
Neymar started Barca’s unlikely revival. He was clearly a player determined to make things happen and almost scored moments before he actually did, as his shot on the rebound was deflected wide after goalkeeper Kevin Trapp had palmed away an initial cross.
The pressure on PSG was at its most intense at this point and the 25-year-old Brazilian superstar ultimately capitalised. After he had been brought down by a clumsy Angel Di Maria challenge, Neymar subsequently curled in a sublime free kick from the edge of the box.Source: SportLife/YouTube
Trapp, who was patently at fault for the first goal, arguably could have done better, but the effort was beautifully struck regardless.
Was Messi ‘quiet’?
Interestingly, Lionel Messi has received some criticism in the aftermath of Barca’s emphatic win on the night. Ex-France coach Raymond Domenech led the backlash, arguing: “The worst Barcelona player in this game, it was [Messi]. He was in the centre of the pitch, like when he does not want to run.
“His bad games, he’s always doing that, he’s coming down, he believes he organises, he wants to do everything.
“I think he’s at the end, but he gave so much, he was so magical. He was on and off, he was missing.”
Granted, Messi has played better games and has been more dominant. He no longer has the same level of pace and energy of his younger days. But to suggest the 29-year-old was ineffectual on Wednesday night is nonsense.
True, the Argentine international misplaced passes more frequently compared with his usual high standards, but he also had a huge influence on the game. In addition to scoring the first penalty, Messi also created the second with a breathtaking pass (see below).
Messi was fighting until the end and even won the free kick from which the pivotal sixth goal was ultimately scored.
So yes, Messi’s game has evolved and he’s not the same player that he once was, but suggestions of the star’s demise have been greatly exaggerated of late. He remains a world-class footballer who can influence games at the highest level, as was evident on more than one occasion during the week.
Did Barca’s cheating tarnish their victory?
The above issue has been a topic of significant debate and there is no doubt that Barca were guilty of cynical, Machiavellian play on more than one occasion on Wednesday.
The most blatant example was probably the penalty in the lead up to the fifth goal, where Suarez shamelessly dives.
It was a poor decision from the referee and inexcusable behaviour from the Uruguayan star, but also naive defending. If you watch the incident clearly, though he doesn’t make a clear-cut infringement, Marquinhos — a rumoured Chelsea and Man United target — puts his arm across Suarez. This gives the striker an excuse to react and creates a decision for the referee to make. The 22-year-old may have been unlucky to a degree, but he was not entirely blameless in the matter either.
And while there has been much hand-wringing over Barca’s questionable ethics, virtually no one has pointed out that PSG were just as cynical. They may not have won any penalties by diving, but their relentless tactical fouling (such as the infringement on Messi seen above) also essentially amounted to cheating, meaning they were far from the innocent parties in the overall context of the game.
Furthermore, anyone who believes such behaviour is in anyway novel or extreme clearly has not been paying much attention to football over the past few years. Cheating has been rife in the game for a long time, and virtually every match is riddled with it — the recent Man United-Bournemouth clash being another prime example. If Barca’s victory is tarnished, then the same could be said of virtually every top-level match this season, as the type of incidents witnessed on Wednesday night have been embedded in the game for decades.
Of course, the referee made some poor decisions in Barca’s favour — and looks set to receive a demotion as a result — but equally, PSG benefitted from a number of contentious calls at times during the tie, particularly in the first leg.
The decision below, for instance, was one that was ignored in the dying stages, when it looked as if the defender had genuinely impeded Suarez.
The all-important sixth goal
Of all the late goals conceded, the sixth was the worst from a defensive viewpoint.
As the image below highlights, there is plenty of communication in the build-up from the PSG backline.
Yet there is an obvious lack of proper organisation and clear drop in concentration.
In the image below, there are two Barcelona players free at the far post. It’s as if PSG are only concerned with playing a high line and have ignored the need to mark opposition attackers.
Moreover, Serge Aurier, who had replaced Julian Draxler as a 75th-minute substitute, is inexplicably caught ball-watching, allowing Sergi Roberto to run through unopposed and score a famous goal.Source: SportLife/YouTube
It was a fitting finish to an extraordinary match that will be talked about for decades to come, and another example of Neymar at his exquisite best, as well as being an incident that as with much of the game in general, PSG players, staff and supporters will greatly rue for a long time to come.
The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!