For 62 minutes Lionel Messi looked on from the touchline and for 62 minutes Barcelona looked a shell of the dominant force they normally are; misplacing passes, second guessing each other and panicking in the final third at both ends of the pitch. However, it would be disrespectful towards Paris Saint-Germain to solely credit Messi’s absence for Barcelona’s lacklustre display for over an hour as the visitors were exceptional on the night having put the mighty Catalans to the sword.
Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics were spot on in the first leg of this Champions League encounter and he didn’t disappoint in the return fixture either. Once again, he was bold enough to play two up front in a 4-4-2 formation when most sides would rather pack their midfield against the Spanish giants. He believed his attack could get the better of their frail defense, put faith in that notion and it so nearly paid off.
The game proved without a doubt that you can get at Barcelona’s defense and put them under real pressure if you’re brave enough to attack in numbers. The opening goal was a prime example of that as Zlatan Ibrahimovic got on the ball around the half way line with the counter-attack well and truly on. Instead of being crowded out by the home side’s center-backs, he had two runners penetrating the Catalans’ high-line to choose from and played the right pass to Javier Pastore who ran clean through before beating Victor Valdes.
While Ibrahimovic had another one of his quieter games, he did spring to life on a couple of occasion with sufficient support around him as opposed to being isolated up front. He was commanding in his aerial battles, winning all 7 headers that he contested for on the night while he slipped the ball through to Pastore for the Argentine’s goal.
Leaving David Beckham on the bench this time around proved to be the right move from Ancelotti as the Parisian midfield needed to be energetic in order to compete with Barcelona’s at the Camp Nou and with Blaise Matuidi suspended the duo of Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti was exceptional. Verratti in particular covered a lot of ground while he always had an eye for a good forward pass. Motta on the other hand brought experience and composure in the heart of their midfield.
The two central midfielders were also aided by Pastore as he drifted in from his position on the left flank on a number of occasions while Ezequiel Lavezzi pulled wide which saw the system morph into a 4-3-3. Barcelona on the other hand looked a bit sloppy by their standards and couldn’t find that final ball.
PSG’s forwards were threatening throughout but often lacked composure when opportunities presented themselves. Lavezzi was the guilty party in the first half while Pastore also wasted a couple of great chances following his goal in the second. Had they taken their chances, they might have put the game to far from Barcelona’s grasp even for Messi to retrieve.
For a team that’s renowned for dictating games, the number of times Barcelona were caught defending frantically is truly astounding. At the other end of the pitch, PSG’s defense was organized and stood their ground well with their captain Thiago Silva leading by example. Of course, their defenders were probably the most pleased by the sight of Messi watching on from the bench and also benefited from the Barcelona attackers snatching at their opportunities like so many players do when they are desperate for a goal.
However, all that changed in a blink of an eye as Messi was brought on for Cesc Fabregas just past the hour mark. Suddenly, it was like someone had finally switched the light on for the hosts who up until that point seemed to toil in the dark. In a matter of minutes, the PSG penalty box transformed into a shooting gallery as the visitors had to get three or four blocks in to protect their lead in quick succession.
Apart from the psychological boost Messi’s presence gave the hosts, the diminutive Argentine was also heavily involved in the equalizer that came less than 10 minutes following his introduction. After a trademark penetrating run that left a couple of defenders in his wake, he played a pass to David Villa in the box who laid it off for Pedro to unleash a fierce strike into the far corner.Ultimately, Barcelona lived to fight another day and to their credit, had come through a truly challenging period having to chase the game. However, just like Real Madrid domestically this season and AC Milan in the previous round of the Champions League, PSG exposed more frailties in the Blaugrana’s armoury which may yet cost them in the final stages of the competition. While shedding light on Barcelona’s shortcomings is rather more intriguing, it shouldn’t take away from highlighting the strength of the Parisians after they flexed their muscles against the Catalans and so nearly dumped them out of Europe.
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