The last time Barcelona were dismantled 4-0 away from home in the Champions League, a similar thought had entered the mind: was this a passive performance from the Spanish giants, or was it their opponents simply having too much for them to deal with.
When the game ended, and Bayern Munich with their 4-0 cushion knew they had essentially booked their place in the 2013 Champions League final, there was a strange feeling of something great coming to an end. It certainly felt as though the mighty Barcelona, with their mighty Messi, would be making way for teams like Bayern Munich in terms of European dominance.
As it happened, it wasn’t exactly the case. That summer, Neymar signed from Santos, a player widely regarded to be the next big thing. Then the following year, after the World Cup ended, Luis Suarez signed from Liverpool. Together with the talismanic Messi, the three have formed possibly the most dangerous and potent front line in history.
In May of 2014, in walked former Celta Vigo manager Luis Enrique to take over from the short lived Gerardo Martino. That 14/15 season, after a difficult start for Enrique – who the Spanish press were convinced had not won over the likes of Messi and reported rumblings of disquiet from within the camp – brought their first treble since 2009.
Crisis? What crisis?
Now, here we are in 2017, as we enter the knockout stages of another Champions League campaign, and it’s happened to Barcelona again.
Enrique’s side came up against a PSG team who for once in the last four years are not walking to the French league title without much resistance. The first leg was played at the Parc De Princes on February 14th, during a month when usually the current French champions have their sights on European progression, with their domestic chores having already been seen to for another season.
PSG dominated the game, they were hungry for the ball – something which they usually are in European games but the energy tends to ebb in the second half – they were relentless in possession and without the ball too. All in all, they wanted to win more.
Unai Emery was no doubt brought in for his European experience and because he had the trophies to show for it. Three Europa League titles on the bounce was enough to convince the rich Qatari owners that this was the man who could bring to PSG what Laurent Blanc was unable to; European calibre.
In regards to this match in Paris, the original question rears its head again; was this Barcelona on an off day, or PSG on a very “on” day?
Barca’s flatness can’t be ignored. You’ll never see a more anonymous performance from two players who many regard respectively as the best player and best striker on Earth. Suarez and Messi were invisible. Their only real attacking threat came from the third prong of the trident. Brazilian Neymar showed flashes of his brilliance and wicked pace, but it just wasn’t enough.
It must have been a terribly frustrating night for Neymar. He looked like the only player who was in some way up for it, who wanted to push for that precious away goal. His frustration can be summed up when at one point he burst up that left wing, cut inside, bombed past two or three players and played a beautifully timed and weighted pass to Andre Gomes, putting him in on goal, but the Portuguese couldn’t convert.
Barcelona’s deficiencies could be talked about at length, but I think it was the calibre of PSG’s performance that proved the vital component in this resounding victory.
Three or four players from the Paris could have earned the man of the match accolade. Had Marco Verratti not been unfortunate enough to pick up an injury at the hour mark and be subbed, he would have easily earned it.
The Italian is fast being recognised as one of the best young midfielders in Europe. His composure on the ball, his vision and passing ability, the way he wriggles away from challenges with a terrifying ease, he could remind the average football viewer of a younger Iniesta, and I do believe the young Paris player could soon end up at the club where the World Cup and European Cup winner made his name as one of the best players ever to grace a pitch.
Perhaps the only plus side of Verratti making an early exit was that it gave the crowd an opportunity to show their appreciation for the Italian’s wonderful performance with a thunderous round of applause that had the air of unending respect and adulation.
Adrian Rabiot saw out the full ninety minutes, and he was absolutely tremendous throughout. Both defensively and going forward, the young Frenchman put in possibly his best performance for the club. He won tackles all over the pitch and showed a real determination when engaging in attacks. The guy just didn’t stop working. He picked up a yellow card very early into the game, which normally would be the kind of thing to make a midfielder ease off his subsequent challenges and be more careful, but the way Rabiot played for the rest of the game, you’d never have guessed he was in the book since the tenth minute. He and Verratti ran the show.
Kimpembe had a great game at the back in the absence of captain Thiago Silva, who is the real source of stability and experience in that defensive line. Very late on, he made a tackle from within his own box that if mistimed, could have resulted in a penalty and an away goal for Barcelona. But it was perfectly executed, and alongside Marquinos in central defense, the pair kept an in-form Suarez from doing much at all.
The star of the show was Di Maria, who scored a brace and is certainly looking back to his world-class best, which certainly wasn’t the case during his brief time at United, during which Di Maria had subsequently admitted he was constantly played out of his favoured position by Van Gaal. With new-ish siging Draxler operating on the opposite wing, and Cavani playing up front, the three gave a real balance and freshness to the side going forward and were a nightmare for Barcelona’s back line throughout the match.
Does this spell the end for another glorious reign at Barcelona? With a very early European exit looking likely, and with a seven-point gap between themselves and Real Madrid being a big possibility once Madrid have played their games in hand, this season may very well be Enrique’s last. But, as with the damaging defeat at Bayern Munich (and the eventual 7-0 aggregate score resulting in the second-leg loss), this defeat to PSG in particular could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It could be the sign that perhaps another change is needed.
A performance such as this will really make people sit up and take notice of PSG. If they put in performances like this every game, they’ll win the thing.
The tie is not over yet however. If there is one team in the world you would back to overcome a four-nil deficit (even providing that such a feat has never been achieved in the Champions League knockout rounds before), it would be Barcelona. But because of the ease with which some of the goals came in the first leg, PSG will probably back themselves to score at the Nou Camp, thus effectively sealing their place in the quarter-finals, a stage in the competition which they are yet to surpass since the Qatari investment group bought the club in 2011.
With the Ligue 1 title still within their sights and a very positive re-start to the European campaign, it could turn out to be a very successful first season for Emery.
WRITTEN BY DAVID NEWMAN