Sometimes miracles can happen.
On Mar. 8, 2017, FC Barcelona accomplished the impossible by defeating Paris Saint-Germain 6-1, becoming the first team in UEFA Champions League history to overcome a 4-0 first leg deficit. Much credit is given to Barcelona for their resilient hard work and perseverance, yet it can be safe to say that PSG have no one to blame but themselves. Here’s how one of the greatest Champions League ties ever went down:
Having not advanced past the quarterfinals in the Champions League since the 2012-2013 season, PSG were considered to be underperforming, despite investing in a multitude of world class players such as Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimović. With the addition of new manager Unai Emery, who had won the Europa League the past three years with Sevilla, and top quality players, Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria, PSG had a point to prove when they faced Barcelona in the Round of 16.
From the first whistle, the French side were relentless. Lining up in a 4-3-3, with Di Maria, Cavani, and Draxler leading the front line, they high pressed Barcelona, preventing the Spanish team from forming any sort of passing rhythm from the back. Cutting off passing lanes to Barcelona’s midfield and center backs, PSG’s front three were able to contain Barcelona’s ball movement within the attacking third. This resulted in Barcelona’s keeper, Andre Ter Stegen, having to generate possession, forcing him to play long balls that usually ended out of bounds or in a loss of the ball. Without their typically rhythmic ball movement, Barcelona’s lethal front three of MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar) was nullified.
Even when Barcelona was in possession, the areas of the pitch that they usually had the ball were far from the opposition’s goal. This was due to the highly-organized and compact midfield of PSG, which limited the space for Barcelona players to move forward. With the center of the pitch being so tight and compressed, PSG was able to suffocate Barcelona’s usually fluid midfield and force the ball to be played into crowded space.
Known for their high intensity and quick passing, Barcelona seemed unable to produce any sort of energy in midfield, which resulted in multiple turnovers of possession. Even Messi, who usually picks out passes with ease, was completely overrun as he always seemed to be swarmed by PSG players.https://youtu.be/-FQu7EM6U0A?t=78
With PSG eventually thrashing Barcelona 4-0 at home, it was safe to say that Barcelona would be eliminated. Even the likes of UEFA believed the Spanish club were done and dusted.
The loss in Paris not only represented likely elimination from the Champions League, but also the end of an era for Barcelona. With Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique, announcing that he would step down as manager at the end of the season, Barcelona would soon have to look for a new manager and new players to replace the likes of aging leaders Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. Looking set to miss out on the opportunity of a 10th straight quarterfinal appearance, Barcelona had their backs against the wall.
Leading up to the second leg, there was much debate as to whether Barcelona would be able to pull off the miracle comeback to qualify for the quarterfinals. Realistically, even if Barcelona were to score four goals to tie things up on aggregate, only one PSG away goal would require Barcelona to score six goals in total to advance. Despite the monumental task ahead for Barcelona, confidence and hope did not seem to falter within the Catalan club. As Luis Enrique stated in a press interview, “if PSG scored four, we can score six”.
While much attention and pressure was focused on the Spanish opposition, it seemed as though the PSG players were quite comfortable heading into the second leg at the Camp Nou.
Now if any team was to come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit in the Champions League, that team would be Barcelona. Having been unbeaten at home in the Champions League since their loss to Bayern Munich in the 2012-2013 season (19 games), Barcelona at the Camp Nou can be practically considered invincible. Winning their previous three Champions League home games this season by the scores of 7-0, 4-0, and 4-0, Barcelona had hope of that miracle comeback. Oh boy, did they deliver. Ending in an enthralling score of 6-1, Barcelona thrashed PSG to complete arguably the greatest comeback in football history.
How is it possible for PSG to not just beat, but to humiliate a team of the highest caliber such as Barcelona to the tune of 4-0 a couple weeks ago and then completely forget how to play football and lose 6-1? It is simply mind-blowing. Yes, PSG manager Unai Emery knew it was going to be a tough 90 minutes at the Camp Nou, yet his tactics were clearly questionable.
Opting to absorb pressure and expose on the counter attack, Emery planned to go for a more defensive approach. Instead of pursuing the vital away goal early on to kill the tie off, Emery truly believed he could defend for 90+ minutes versus Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Hilarious. In essence, PSG were playing to “not lose,” when they should have been playing to “win.”
Despite Emery facing much of the criticism for his tactics, two moments of the game that deserve more of the spotlight are the crucial 1v1 opportunities for Cavani and Di Maria.
When players are brought into the team for $68 million and $54 million, respectively, they are expected to capitalize simple 1v1 opportunities. Unfortunately for PSG, those two misses costed them a ticket to the quarterfinals.
Despite PSG’s less than impressive display, nothing should be taken away from Barcelona’s incredible performance. It is fitting that Barcelona pulled off the comeback in their own backyard, as every aspect of the game seemed to be in sync for the Catalan club. The players, fans, and coaching staff all seemed to embody the collective belief that the miracle comeback was possible under the improbable circumstances.
Needing at least four goals, Barcelona lined up in a 3-4-3, allowing Messi to push up in a more central attacking role. This allowed Barcelona to provide Messi opportunities closer to goal, yet at the same time stretch the field by pushing Rafinha out to the righthand side. With PSG dropping to a very defensive 4-5-1, it allowed Barcelona’s back three (Mascherano, Pique, Umtiti), to push up to the center of midfield, clamping in the French side to their own half.
Unlike in the first leg where PSG pressed Barcelona to their own 18-yard box, the roles were completely reversed. Barcelona took advantage of PSG’s defensive shape and pressed high up the pitch. With most of the game played in PSG’s compressed defensive third, Barcelona finally showed their swift, methodical ball movement by consistently widening the play through Neymar to Rafinha to offset PSG’s backline. Even when PSG gained possession of the ball, the French team would not be able to maintain possession as they persistently tried to play triangle passes, which failed due to Barcelona’s superb high press. Direct long balls over the top would have solved a lot of PSG’s problems, yet they failed to recognize this and continued to consistently lose possession outside their own box. Passing numbers clearly demonstrate PSG’s struggles in keeping possession, as Barcelona had almost triple the amount of completed passes with 591 compared to PSG’s mere 183.
PSG completed just FOUR passes between the 85th minute and full-time.— James McManus (@JamesMcManus1) March 8, 2017
THREE of those were from kick-off after conceding Barcelona goals. pic.twitter.com/G0odu6jhjj
Barcelona’s pressing game was executed to the point of perfection, such that PSG completed just four passes between the 85th minute to full-time. Three of those passes were from kick-off after conceding Barcelona goals. With the quality and talent a team such as PSG possess, there is no excuse as to why this should happen. With Barcelona needing three goals at this point in the match to advance, PSG should have been smarter by attempting to keep the ball. This just goes to show that the little things are what separates the good teams from the great teams.
Looking back on the game, PSG’s approach still baffles the mind. Why detract from the game plan that brought so much success in the first leg? Why not make a change of tactics at halftime? These will be questions that will haunt Emery and players for generations to come. However, for all the Barcelona supporters out there, they will forever celebrate and cherish the night of PSG’s misery as the night of their remarkable and miraculous remontada.
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