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History tells us that St. Valentine didn’t have a kind ending for his defiance of Emperor Claudius II. He was put to death for his actions and even though the day is celebrated as one of love, it has always had a sinister undercurrent to it. Maybe that’s what Paris Saint-Germain were going for? In the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 at the Parc des Princes, neither PSG nor Unai Emery came into the game with a positive record against Barcelona. They did ensure that by the end of the 90 minutes that much was put to rest giving PSG a near unassailable 4-0 lead ahead of the second leg at the Nou Camp. A team is yet to overturn that kind of deficit in the second leg in the history of the competition.
Barcelona and PSG lined up in a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, respectively, with Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot holding things in the centre for PSG while Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, and André Gomes started for Barcelona, with Iniesta and Busquets fresh off their injuries. Blaise Matuidi was the third midfielder, which meant PSG would alternate between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 depending on the possession. What prompted Luis Enrique to start Gomes over Ivan Rakitić is a source of mystery, since the Croatian was fit, had game time, and has always been a starter in the Champions League, more often than not. Thomas Meunier was a surprise at right back for PSG, with Emery preferring to rest the more attack-minded Serge Aurier. 21-year-old Presnel Kimpenbe, made his UCL debut in a deserved start, filling in for the world-class Thiago Silva, who was injured.
Only ten minutes into the game, it became apparent what Unai Emery wanted PSG to do. As every team who has managed to get the better of Barcelona have done, they pressed furiously. Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen was put under constant pressure from the front three of PSG and he certainly looked edgy from all the focus on him. The Barcelona midfield were given no time to settle, and no passing channels seemed to manifest in front of Iniesta or Busquets, which meant the three-headed MSN monster up front had no role to play until around the 15th-minute mark when Neymar made a run leaving Meunier stranded. This was not the PSG of old, though, with their attack-minded players blinding them to the defensive side of the game. The work Emery has been doing is starting to show, and PSG were remarkably well-covered at the back, meaning Neymar didn’t have many options once he ran past the right back.
An 18th-minute free kick by birthday boy Ángel Di Maria gave them a 1-0 lead after a foul by Samuel Umtiti outside the box. That was probably the only goal of the game which didn’t come as a result of a lack of intensity from the visitors.
It wasn’t until the 28th minute that Gomes was put through on goal after a neat interplay between Neymar and Lionel Messi, but Gomes’ shot arrived straight at the onrushing PSG goalkeeper, Kevin Trapp.
The entire Barcelona midfield was being over-run due to the intense pressing of Matuidi, Rabiot, and Verratti. This meant the front three of Barcelona were starved of the ball for extended periods of the game. On the flanks a different battle ensued where Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto were having trouble dealing with the surging runs of Julian Draxler and Di Maria. As a result, the support that they could offer to Neymar and Messi on either side dwindled, as each forward foray of theirs opened up space for the PSG wingers to occupy. The fact that Iniesta and Busquets were remarkably off form may have something to do with it, maybe they came on too soon after their respective injuries, but the control that Barcelona seeks to exercise when things descend into chaos was absent. This season has seen games where Barcelona have not quite been themselves, but have suffered for long periods of the game and still come out of it with a favourable scoreline. In those games, the team had shown an ability to retain shape if not control, thus ensuring they were always in the game. This was different, PSG were a pack of wolverines on amphetamines and coffee, and they smelled blood.
The goal that made the scoreline 2-0 for PSG epitomised the night. Messi lost possession to Rabiot, who seamlessly found Verratti. The Italian then ran unchallenged towards the defence and released Draxler on the right, who slotted into the corner.
The lack of movement in possession, the lack of movement off the ball, the lack of intensity to challenge Verratti all contributed to the outcome. The second half followed the same script to the chagrin of some who thought a comeback was on the cards. PSG retained their shape marvellously at the back for Barcelona to think of breaking through. The unfazed Kimpenbe didn’t even look like he was making his Champions League debut against what is arguably the most fearsome frontline of all time. Ten minutes into the second half, Di Maria had made it 3-0 with a smart run by Layvin Kurzawa, the PSG left back who cut inside to find Di Maria. The Argentine, who was afforded ample time and space on the ball, got the ball onto his left foot before curling a shot into the left corner.
Too much time and space was being afforded to PSG on the edge of the box and they made it count. The scoreline read 4-0 when the other full back, Meunier, was given the same luxury of running and bypassing the Barcelona midfield and finding Edinson Cavani, who struck the shot first time before Gerard Piqué could reach in and get a leg in. It was inconceivable to see such laxity from a side that prides itself on not losing possession of the ball and retrieving it as soon as it’s lost.
André Gomes was taken off and replaced by Rafinha early in the second half, and later Rakitić came on for Iniesta but it was too late. Umtiti had a header come off the crossbar towards the end of the game, and that was the best chance the Blaugrana created in the game.
By the end of the 90 minutes, PSG had won more duels across the pitch, had created more chances, made more tackles, clearances, and interceptions. These were all the typical characteristics of Unai Emery’s Sevilla sides, who laid claim to three successive Europa League trophies not so long ago. It’s not clear how much blame ought to lie on the Barcelona manager as his team were barely allowed to play. Rabiot has matured to a great extent since the last time he showed up against Barcelona and surely his is a name that will be finding more mentions when the top clubs look to fill that defensive midfield role. As to the strange display by Barcelona, did Enrique take the game lightly and not anticipate Emery to attack from the get-go? Busquets seemed to suggest in an on-pitch interview that they weren’t tactically up to it. How much can be read into that is a mystery because players run through all kinds of emotions in the immediate aftermath of a result.
Busquets is the pivot around which the whole play revolves and, predictably, PSG targeted him ruthlessly the moment he gained possession, with Rabiot and Verratti unrelenting in their pressing. The entire rhythm suffered and there was no one stepping up, least of all Iniesta, who looked jaded. The more problematic part is to see where Luis Enrique is headed with the choices he has made, like choosing to start André Gomes over Ivan Rakitić. The Croatian is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the business, adept at putting out fires all over the pitch and so instrumental in their treble- and double-winning seasons, but all he’s got now is a bit-part role in Enrique’s tactical set-up.
Iniesta isn’t getting any younger and the more Denis Suárez is integrated into the squad the better it will be to regain control of the midfield, since he’s the closest to replicating that control. Barcelona need to go all out in search for the goals as conservatism is neither in their DNA nor apt for the situation. As for PSG, they are really in a tremendous position and it won’t be a surprise to see them sit back a little before hurting Barcelona on the counter in the return leg in Barcelona.