It takes two teams to let six goals slip in – and those lads were happy to help.
Remontada. The magic word. The salvation from inevitable. Many strive for it; many dream about it after suffering the first-leg nightmare. But few have accomplished it; even fewer have made it big enough to reach the history books. It’s because Remontada has it’s own requirements; it’s own rights. It isn’t only about one team reaching the absolute peak of their footballing powers and blowing the other team away. To cite the classic: “It’s not enough that the Spanish side should succeed – the non-Spanish side should fail”. Only then it can happen.
On Wednesday, all ingredients for it were in the right place.
First and foremost: the visitors have turned up like a team ready to lose – lose hard. They’ve benched Presnel Kimpembe who absolutely bossed Luis Suárez in the first leg. They did not dare to risk Ángel Di María’s fitness, which the Argentinian has been struggling with right after scoring a brace at Parc des Princes three weeks ago. Grzegorz Krychowiak, the defensive midfielder who has more experience at facing Barcelona than any of his teammates, has been given only an injury-time cameo. On the surface, team that replaces those names with the likes of Lucas Moura and Thiago Silva, should not be too concerned – but the problems went far beyond the selection.
One thing PSG have been utterly unprepared for was Barcelona’s brand new, borderline crazy 3-4-3 formation. Faced with the task of scoring at least four goals, Luis Enrique took drastic measures, getting rid of wing-backs entirely and ordering his team to press as high up as possible – even at the cost of getting countered. As a result, Barca’s first-half formation was effectively 1-0-4-5, with no defenders, Umtiti, Mascherano, Pique and Busquets forming the midfield and Ivan Rakitić being the only player on the field without a clearly defined role. By the way: the Croatian was clearly handling this madness the worst, as he was the one FCB lad to track back and carry out the conservative footballing tasks most frequently.
No other team in the world could commit to such extravaganza and hope to get the result in the end. However – no other team can assemble a makeshift midfield like Barcelona’s: a midfield with three, ball-playing centre backs and Busquets. On Wednesday, those four players alone have attempted 292 passes: 53 more than the entire PSG team. Only sixteen of those actions were wasteful, which leaves this quartet wit a staggering 94.5% efficiency at moving the ball. They’ve also won three tackles, eight headers and made twelve (!) interceptions, stifling the likes of Rabiot and Matuidi to death. Once they tightened such grip on the French champions’ necks – there was no answer.
Historically, we’ve seen the teams capable of soaking up such pressure at Camp Nou and still coming out on top; in fact, José Mourinho could write the entire guide on the topic of survival in that particular lion’s den. Still: even with four goals in the bag and a simple task of parking the bus while the stadium scoreboard continues to display 0-0 scoreline – it’s all about the composure. For the visitors, it ought to be, at all cost, the game in which nothing would happen except for 90 minutes passing. Knocking the ball around, clearing the danger and tracking back all Barcelona players religiously – those were the simple requirements. Instead, the visitors insisted on playing slapstick football, making mistake after mistake and allowing the match to open up on someone else’s terms.
As a result, the first two goals that determined the flow of the entire contest were the least typical strikes Blaugrana in it’s current state could produce. Instead of individual brilliancy, exquisite teamplay or unstoppable shooting technique, the Catalans pounced on the most difficult, nearly lost balls – balls that normally should be kicked out so far that they’d leave the stadium. Suárez was in his element again, wisely anticipating the rebound from a scrappy headed duel between Silva and Rafinha. Nine extra centimetres of height did not help the Brazilian this time: he was outpositioned for that aerial battle and with barely 270 seconds elapsed, the metaphorical feces have hit the metaphorical turbine.
It got even more hilarious by the end of the first half, when it seemed that the visitors will just about crawl towards the break with just a 0-1 deficit and get a breather to sort out their thoughts. A persistent run by Iniesta saw him robbing Marquinhos off the bouncing ball that could’ve – and should’ve – been simply cleared by the Brazilian. Caught out between three PSG players (including the goalkeeper), Barcelona veteran went for the only option: an acrobatic backheel aimed at finding a teammate in the middle. There was no teammate there; in fact, they were hardly following the action. And yet, Layvin Kurzawa, one of the unsung heroes of the first leg, has put it into the back of the net.
To Unai Emery’s credit: for a brief moment in the second half, it looked that his team has put it’s grotesque qualities aside and gained a little bit of professional focus. It looked like that – for a brief period of just five minutes. Apparently, the fate has conspired against all superb performers from the 4-0 swoop back in February. Thomas Meunier, a rock-solid right-back three weeks ago, has tumbled when Iniesta neatly slipped the pass in-behind him. With Neymar arriving to collect the ball, the Belgian had no choice but to fall right in the path of his opponent. Perhaps, he did not intend to impede the guy: but in the end, he did accomplish that anyway and the resulting penalty has been called absolutely correctly.
The same thing goes for the fifth goal. The accusations of diving against Suárez are laughable: the Uruguayan was easily ahead of Marquinhos in the race to yet another brilliant pass by Messi. In such situation, with strikers’ shirt number in front of him, the centre-back can do nothing but to watch the opponent putting the ball in the back of the net. PSG player decided to act, giving Suárez an elbow-to-throat treatment. Let’s be serious here: by conceding both this and the previous fouls, the visitors have actually sent Barcelona through. Had they let Neymar and Suárez run unobstructed – their opponents might’ve missed shots or lost duels with Trapp. But with the spot-kicks on the line – Messi and Neymar were merciless.
Neymar inspired the unthinkable – so then, it happened.
Ultimately, it was down to the wonderkid from Santos to revive Barcelona’s hopes. After Cavani’s strike, Remontada seemed completely impossible. FCB players had their own outbursts of frustration, misplacing the passes and picking up unnecessary bookings. All Paris had to do was smooth sailing: three-goal edge in hand, only 28 minutes to get through, a deflated side in front of them… Until Neymar got to execute a free-kick ahead of his mentor Messi. It was a venomous, curled, top-corner shot, but still: even if Kevin Trapp couldn’t reach it, he could’ve, at least, get beaten in the full stretch, reaching out for that shot. Instead, he just jogged, like a mere spectator. Whom, to an extent, he was.
When Sergi Roberto rolled the last-gasp winner for the hosts, it was merely a logical closure to a hilariously awful display of the French side. “Unthinkable” – L’Equipe titled their Thursday edition, showing the picture of devastated Edinson Cavani walking past a bunch of Barcelona players hugging each other. “Heads will surely roll” – added Le Parisien, pointing out at Emery as the architect of a disaster. Indeed: with Champions League out of the window, Ligue 1 still being firmly led by Monaco and six top-tier clubs still running for the French Cup, PSG are in danger of completing this season without a single piece of silverware.
The trophy drought hasn’t been a thing in Paris since 2012 and the first season after the Qatari takeover – which was, by the way, the last season before Zlatan Ibrahimović’s era. But is the Swede the man they’re missing so much? Not really: after all, Cavani is currently on 35 league and European goals, leading the continental charts one goal ahead of Messi and a handful above Aubameyang or Džeko.
He is not a problem. The grotesque bottle job his entire team pulled off is. And that is the other, uglier, less suitable for history books face of this Remontada.