Barcelona v PSG: A Tale of Two Goals

Through the eye of the needle

Harvey Kelly takes a look at the key moments in the Champions League semi-final second leg in Barcelona.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A wonderful game, which probably would have been the pick of the quarter-finals if Dortmund hadn’t beaten Malaga with two goals in the 91st and 93rd minutes, but Paris Saint-Germain leave the competition proudly, a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou not quite enough, victims of the away-goals rule.

PSG, with their aggressive mindset, higher defensive line, quick counter-attacks, and far more midfield pressing than is usual for teams facing Barcelona, were impressive and the better team in the first half. The most exciting aspect was how comfortable PSG were in possession, in all areas, exhibiting confidence, technique and touch on the ball. Carlo Ancelotti had said beforehand that PSG would ‘play football’ and he was good to his word: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the best player on the pitch, refined his almost unique role as target-man and playmaker in one; Marco Verratti, aged 20, is clearly the future of Italy’s midfield; Javier Pastore looked every inch a 40 million euro player. Perhaps only Mourinho’s Real Madrid have played so well at Camp Nou in recent times, and it took a few humiliating defeats before their fortune changed; here Ancelotti and PSG got it right first time.

“The first pass [against Barca] must be successful and take two or three players out of the equation. You need a guy who’s got great feet and who sees things quickly, because there is no time. You must find the vertical pass that disrupts the lines.” – Didier Deschamps, speaking to Patrick Dessault in 2011

PSG were extremely ‘vertical’, sending quick long passes straight up to the pitch, with Ibrahimovic at the heart of their play – to help with this directness, when they attacked, Lucas Moura was pushing so far up on the right that it was almost a 4-3-3, with Lavezzi-Ibrahimovic-Lucas forming an attacking trident. Pastore, disappointing in Paris, was one of the standout performers for PSG, excelling as a left-sided playmaker. Thiago Motta and Verratti were holding central midfielders, rarely venturing forward, but with Verratti’s distribution a key element in their gameplan.

The PSG goal perfectly encapsulated the blueprint of their fast vertical play: Motta intercepting a pass on the edge of the PSG area, the ball then breaking to Verratti. Under pressure, the young Italian chipped a beautiful clearing pass over Xavi which looked for the run of Pastore to the left.

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Under pressure, Verratti chips the ball over Xavi

Veratti’s pass fell for Ibrahimovic coming from deep, and Pastore continued sprinting down the left. Ibra played a quick one-two with Pastore and then spots Lavezzi on his right making a forward run.

This was 3 v 4: Ibrahimovic on the ball, Pastore on the left, and Lavezzi on the right. For Barcelona, Alves and Adriano were chasing Pastore, Busquets was with Lavezzi, and facing Ibra, was Gerard Pique.

Ibrahimovic versus Pique

Ibrahimovic versus Pique

To be hyper-critical, Pique makes a mistake here. Faced with a dangerous break like this, at speed, and high up the pitch, his first priority has to be to slow the play down – he needs to start moving back towards his own goal, not committing himself, and giving his team-mates time to help. Instead, he tries to maintain a one-man high defensive line, but then he sees Lavezzi running clear of Busquets so adjusts his movement towards the PSG number 11 (ironically Lavezzi runs into an offside position as Busquets has the awareness and tactical discipline to halt his run and try to hold Pique’s high line).

Pique moves to Lavezzi

Pique moves to Lavezzi

And this is where genius expresses itself. Watching the goal again, you can see Ibrahimovic pause for the slightest fraction to see Pique commit himself before playing the ball into space away from the defender – in the split-second that Pique makes a movement to Lavezzi, Zlatan releases the pass to Pastore.

 

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Ibrahimovic releases the ball to Pastore, Pique is in no-man’s-land.

It was a shift in momentum that Ibrahimovic was looking for, and saw, from Pique. This wasn’t so much Barcelona’s high line failing – Pique should never have tried to hold that position – but PSG attacking at pace, directly and very effectively. If the ball got played down the flanks, it was back into the central area straight away – wide men Pastore and Lucas didn’t look to cross the ball from the byline, but come inside and attack Barcelona at high speed in  the centre.

Trying to take advantage of Barcelona playing Adriano Correia, a fullback-cum-winger, in central defence, PSG created a number of chances with this very direct strategy, and probably should have been more than 1-0 up when Messi entered the fray, with Lavezzi in particular spurning the opportunities presented to him.

Ancelotti deserves much credit for this performance; he has struggled to incorporate the players at his disposal and to find a harmony, a fluidity within this side, and while the game’s narrative was turned by Messi’s introduction, the best performances on the night were Parisian: Ibrahimovic, Verratti and Pastore. This almost became one of the landmark evenings in PSG’s young history, and yet despite the result, perhaps it still was: at times disjointed and disinterested this season, winning games through moments of individual brilliance, at Camp Nou this Paris Saint-Germain had a coherence rarely seen before; this game has maybe given the side something they have lacked – they may have found, or rather earned, their identity.

“One day, a cardboard cutout of Messi will win a match.” – Ramon Besa writing for El Pais

0-1 down, and with an ineffectual Cesc Fabregas being substituted for a half-fit Lionel Messi in the 62nd minute, it didn’t take long for him to make the difference; Barcelona equalised nine minutes after his introduction.

The goal was beautiful, pure Barcelona, and pure Messi.

Messi in space when found by Alves

Messi in space when found by Alves

As Messi receives the ball, he turns and drives towards goal (see image below); he’s closed down by Verratti and Motta (both highlighted in blue), but evades their challenges. In the same position, it is almost certain that Fabregas would have attempted a pass to either Villa or Pedro (marked with pink), or retained possession for the team by holding onto the ball and passing laterally or back into midfield.

Messi turns and runs with the ball

Messi turns and runs with the ball

With Messi skipping past Verratti and Motta, Thiago Silva is drawn forward to check the run, and with Villa dashing into the gap left by the Brazilian defender, Messi prods the ball through almost the entire PSG defence and into his path. Villa, showing acute composure and awareness, holds the ball for a second before laying it off for Pedro.

Through the eye of the needle

Through the eye of the needle

From Messi coming onto the pitch, it took Barcelona 9 minutes to equalise. Nine minutes.

The previous weekend, Fabregas had been wonderful in place of Messi, scoring a hat-trick and providing two assists for Alexis Sanchez. Of course, PSG’s defence is going to be a lot tighter than Mallorca’s, who are currently bottom of La Liga, and it is going to be enough for Barcelona to field 11 ‘just very good’ players to defeat a team like Mallorca.

Fabregas is a wonderful passer of the ball, and he’s also a finisher, with good off-the-ball movement, but he can’t take the ball past players and commit defences into creating these gaps, then exploiting them, like Messi does. Most importantly, he doesn’t have that sense of anticipation that Messi possesses – an innate ability to foresee how the game is going to be played in the next fraction of a second; in short, he’s merely an extraordinarily good player trying to take the place of a genius.

Moments after Pastore’s shot hit the back of Valdes’ net, Messi started his warm-up; as he jogged down the sidelines the roar from the 96,000 crowd was remarkable. It wasn’t akin to the sound of a goal being scored – a sudden eruption of joy – this was brooding; there was an expectation about it, a menace, a desperation, and as the crowd realised that Messi’s arrival was drawing near, it became cacophonous. As he came onto the pitch it turned to an enraptured applause, the applause for a returning hero – he’d only been gone for eight days, and one and a half matches, but it felt far, far longer.

Interviewed after the game, various Barcelona players were describing how much of a psychological boost it was just having him out there on the pitch with them, fit or unfit – and it was plain to see; Barcelona looked like a different team, their movement and passing was faster, tighter – in particular Iniesta was more threatening, with some lovely moments in the PSG penalty box in the minutes that followed Messi’s introduction. The Barcelona pressing, poor in the first hour, sharpened immediately with energetic closing in the PSG half forcing errors and regaining possession.

If the tie was solely the 45 minutes in Paris and the 60 minutes at Camp Nou that Barcelona played without Messi, they lost 1-3. The minutes with Messi? 2-0 and the semi-finals.

Barcelona aren’t ‘Messi-dependent’, in that this wasn’t their best player coming off the bench to ‘rescue’ them – as it would be with Ronaldo for Real or Ibrahimovic for PSG – this was something different. The team is built around Messi, created around his unique talents: the wide-players’ duties are to extract the best from him; the midfield of Xavi and Iniesta adapt their positioning according to his presence; David Villa, Spain’s all-time leading scorer, found his way back into the side against Milan acting as a decoy in a role designed to give room to Messi.

Barcelona aren’t dependent on Lionel Messi, it’s much more than that: without Messi, Barcelona don’t make sense.

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