After a late strike salvaged a draw for PSG, Brendon Netto discusses why starting Beckham in a two-man midfield and playing two strikers were the right decisions from Ancelotti.
In the build-up to the Champions League quarter-final clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, the availability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic following a reduction of his two-match ban dominated the team news. However, David Beckham stole the limelight prior to kick-off when news broke of his inclusion in the starting eleven for the Parisians.
Carlo Ancelotti’s surprising decision to start with the only remaining Englishman in this season’s competition was greeted with mixed reactions. Some lauded the Italian’s judgement while others criticized his naivety. A few merely laughed off the decision to even allow the club’s so-called ‘poster boy’ to feature in a game of such magnitude and against arguably the best team in the world no less. Nevertheless, Beckham put in a solid performance despite being outnumbered in midfield and gave a good account of himself.
The uncertainty over Beckham’s fitness and thereby his ability to keep up with a Barcelona’s slick midfield was understandable. That uncertainty was probably elevated to ‘fear’ for the PSG support when it became evident that the home side were setting up in a 4-4-2 formation. Starting the 37 year old against the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets was one thing but to do so with only Blaise Matuidi to accompany him was quite another.
Outnumbered in midfield
So while Ancelotti’s tactics may have seemed strange at first, it quickly became clear that the Italian hasn’t won the Champions League twice by making random decisions for no apparent reason as his strategy began to take shape. The Italian knew that scoring against the Catalans would be hard but not as hard as keeping a clean sheet against them. He realized that his side would need to score if they were to going to get a result, weighed the pros and cons and decided that attacking their vulnerable defense whenever possible would be the best plan of action.
With Ezequiel Lavezzi partnering Ibrahimovic up front, the Barcelona defense had their hands full. The Swede was the focal point in attack while the industrious Argentine did well to put pressure on defenders and make runs to drag them out of position. Additionally, Lucas Moura was on top form and started off brightly on the right wing. The Brazilians pace and dribbling left Jordi Alba beaten on more than one occasion and he was able to draw a few fouls as well. On the opposite flank, Javier Pastore looked to create something every time he drifted inside while he tracked back efficiently to keep an eye on Dani Alves.
Moura was an excellent outlet
While Matuidi did a lot of the closing down and tacking in the middle, Beckham distributed the ball with relative efficiency in the first half. The former England skipper was largely responsible for the ease with which PSG settled into the game in the opening period. His composure on the ball was excellent and his long-balls effective, whether played up to Ibrahimovic or towards Moura or Lavezzi to chase down. In that first half, only Christophe Jallet (32) had more touches than Beckham (28) amongst the PSG players.
If the hosts were more clinical with their chances, we might have been lauding a PSG win instead of appreciating their efforts to salvage a draw. Leading up to Lionel Messi’s opener, the French side had 6 attempts on target as opposed to Barcelona’s solitary effort despite the possession statistics significantly favouring the visitors. Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic in particular were wasteful with their opportunities and PSG were made to pay.
After a Barcelona corner wasn’t fully cleared, Alves executed a sublime pass with the outside of his right boot over the top of the defense which played Messi clean through. The Argentine, who was virtually anonymous until that point, finished clinically into the far corner of the goal from an acute angle. Despite PSG’s best efforts, they were made to go into the break trailing but the fact that Messi didn’t emerge for the second half due an injury, gave them reason to be optimistic.
Cesc Fabregas replaced the diminutive number 10 after the break and while they lost that cutting edge up front, they still dominated play. Meanwhile, Beckham was starting to run out of gas during the second half and was replaced by Marco Verratti in the 70th minute. The Englishman put in a good shift; it was a disciplined display in front of PSG’s back four, nothing spectacular but he played some good passes and did his fair share of running. In fact, he covered 6 kilometers in the first half, more than any other player.
Beckham put in a solid display
PSG caused Barcelona a few problems from a corner as Ibrahimovic shinned his effort to waste another glorious opportunity but the Swede finally got on the score sheet from a subsequent free-kick as Thiago Silva, who was sensational in defense all night, headed onto the frame of the goal and the striker pounced on the rebound, albeit from what appeared to be an offside position. At 1-1, PSG had a decent score-line to take to the Camp Nou.
However, with a minute of normal time remaining, Salvatore Sirigu needlessly brought down Alexis Sanchez in the box when the Chilean’s touch was always going to take him too far away from goal. Xavi stepped up to slot home the penalty but the drama wasn’t over yet. PSG were noticeably causing the Catalans problems every time they launched the ball forward in the last quarter of the game and a ball played up to Ibrahimovic in the final minute of stoppage time made all the difference.
The towering striker barely did anything of note apart from scoring the goal but his decisive knock-down was neatly volleyed by Matuidi whose effort was deflected past a wrong-footed Victor Valdes. Perhaps the hosts should have launched an aerial attack sooner. The Frenchman’s booking earlier on in the game ruled him out of the second leg but he definitely left his mark on the tie with that crucial equalizer.
Ibra was poor but involved in both goals
The visitors enjoyed 68% of possession over the course of the game but while PSG managed 14 attempts at goal and arguably had the better chances, the Catalans had 15 efforts to their name. The decision to play two strikers up front throughout the game definitely paid off in terms of chances in front of goal but those opportunities weren’t made the most of. Ancelotti for his part, had got his tactics spot on.
The advantage no doubt lies with Barcelona as they came away with two away goals but with the scores level, PSG will feel they have a chance to edge the fixture in a one-off game. Whether Beckham will play in that leg again or if we’ll see PSG set up in a similar formation is unclear but for the first leg, both decisions were justified.
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