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Rewriting history is a chance that comes across once in a lifetime for most, for those tasked with changing it and those fortunate enough to witness it. There was a strange feeling heading into the Nou Camp, given that so much had to be done. On one hand, there was the monumental lead that PSG carried into the second leg. On the other, there was the very obvious talent in the Blaugrana squad which made one dream of a turnaround.
Barcelona had changed slightly from the team PSG played in Paris. Luis Enrique’s side needed to score four goals past PSG without conceding even one, and this was just enough to even the scores to take the match into extra time. It was certainly not a situation that any team would fancy, but if there was a team that could fancy it, it would be Barcelona.
The three weeks that passed between the first and the second leg were tumultuous, as far as Barcelona was concerned. Defeat at Paris had set off alarm bells, not so much within the club as much as the larger set that comprises the fans, print media, and the T.V. pundits. Barcelona had not just lost; they had been out-worked and out-thought. The play, said some, had deteriorated to such an extent that they had trouble believing that it was their Barcelona, the Barcelona that enthralled and flummoxed the opposition with their neat passing triangles, their rapid off-the-ball movement, and their collective desire to recover the ball within six seconds of losing it. Now they saw a team that had become too top-heavy in its reliance on the front three, with a midfield that had little to offer, and a right back slot that has been an Achilles’ heel for the side ever since Dani Alves departed.
Luis Enrique had had enough of it, and after Barcelona had somewhat found their groove during the 6-1 La Liga victory over Sporting de Gijón, he decided it was time to depart for pastures anew. Barcelona had just regained their position at the top of the La Liga table, looking to mount a title run that had looked futile only a few weeks back. Not many saw it coming, least of all the players. Life can be hard in that particular job. And the acerbic barbs from fans can force even a monk like Luis Enrique to react. Here was a man who was an ultra-marathon runner, a Quebrantahuesos – “bone crusher” – race, an ironman, and even ran 250 kilometres through the Moroccan desert with a 10-kg rucksack on his back. He was tired now.
The necessity to be constantly finding ways to hurt the opposition can be arduous and thankless at the same time, as he had discovered in recent weeks. He has always been a man who cherished solitude, and realizing that the problems run deeper than just an abandonment of style and tradition, decided it was time to call it a day once the season comes to an end…but not before PSG were given a taste of Barcelona, though.
Since the 4-0 loss against PSG in the first leg, Luis Enrique had decided to change formations, given the obvious deficiencies that had been apparent in Barcelona’s game in midfield and the right back positions. A three-man defence, a four-man midfield, and a front three was being tested ever since that first leg loss and the results had been largely positive, with Barcelona scoring 13 times and conceding just twice. The focus of the formation, however, was to get midfield superiority, while making sure that teams were dragged wide on the flanks. Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, and Samuel Umtiti formed the back line, with Sergio Busquets just ahead of them. Rafinha Alcántara and Neymar flanked either side, with Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić teaming up in the middle. Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez were at the tip, with the front three expected to be fluidic in their movements. Rafinha and Neymar had a very precise purpose in that formation that was all too obvious, stretching the PSG defence to the point of maximum tension. PSG lined up in a similar 4-3-3 from the first leg, with Ángel Di María the only notable absentee. Thiago Silva also made his return to Champions League action by slotting into his familiar centerback role.
It took three minutes for Barcelona to find the back of the net, and it rattled PSG. Barcelona had been pressing with ferociousness and singularity of purpose, and they did not want to let go of the ball. The moment they lost the ball they pressed, harried, and wrestled PSG away from the ball, sheer will taking precedence. In the third minute, the ball was pinged into the box by Rafinha, and PSG Keeper Kevin Trapp became jittery, allowing the raw desire of Luis Suárez to get the better of him.
From that first goal and onwards, Barcelona remained camped outside the PSG box, allowing Neymar and Rafinha to perform their roles to perfection, pulling the PSG defense into all sorts of shapes at the seams. Neymar was running at the defence every chance he got, and Barcelona was mounting up the corner kicks. PSG tried to counter through Edinson Cavani, courtesy of the extremely high defensive line Barcelona was playing, but Umtiti was alert to the danger. Minutes later, Messi shot a free kick, just wide of the post. Close, but not close enough.
Neymar was the next to elicit collective gasps from the Nou Camp crowd when he whizzed a shot from distance, diagonal to the goal, that flew past Trapp and past the post again. Barcelona continued their press, and it was a little surprising to not see PSG break the lines over the top, and have a long ball find an isolated Cavani. El Matador seemed ready to break into a stride as soon as he got the ball, but to his dismay, PSG kept choosing to play it out from the back, playing right into Barcelona’s hands.
One such recovery saw Iniesta take a chance at goal, firing high and wide. Barcelona were clearly not shying away from any tactics: shoot from distance? Check. Crosses into the box? Check. Neat passing around the box? Check. Just after the half-hour mark, Rafinha found himself on the far right, threading a pass through Julian Draxler’s legs but straight onto Trapp. Suárez was next, racing away on the right but pushed too far wide for him to have any angle or balance to shoot. Barcelona could not afford those moments of imprecision, not when the task at hand was this extreme.
Iniesta had been a scurrying presence, unlike the calmer composed version of him who is more often found threading passes forward and taking his time to study the pieces in front of him before making a move. Here the job was one of relentlessness. Iniesta went on a mazy run straight at the PSG defence who backed away half-heartedly as soon as he got into the box. He had reached the by-line, when he back heeled the ball across the face of the PSG goal. Layvin Kurzawa was caught in two minds, to either hack it away or let it be, and he chose the former. The resulting execution was flawed and the ball rolled right into the net.
PSG had been bullied here, their players clearly wilting under the incessant pressure that was being exerted by Barcelona. The cauldron that is Camp Nou was now simmering with hope. Unai Emery looked quizzical, unable to fathom the chain of events which now saw Barcelona get half the job done with just half-time approaching. PSG, however, were in desperate need of the break, as someone needed to remind them of the cushion they still had. Barcelona had not been the prettiest for a change, but had stuck to their mandate, a bunch of fast, precise, dizzying football that did not allow PSG to breathe.
PSG came into the second half with a sense of renewed belief, but five minutes into the half Barcelona scored their third of the night which took them within one goal short of equalling the aggregate score of 3-4 to PSG. Neymar danced past Thomas Meunier, who knew he had no chance of getting to the ball before the Brazilian. In desperation, Meunier threw his upper body at the ball, trying to force it across the by-line, but he brought down Neymar in the process. The referee seemed reluctant to give the penalty, but a consultation with the goal-line official confirmed the worst for PSG. This was nightmarish for a team coming into the game with a seemingly unassailable lead. Messi took this one, going for sheer power as he blazed it past Trapp.
Barcelona continued to attack PSG from all angles, the Parisians remained wobbly, as if recovering from a night of drunken stupor, while they were continuously overpowered in midfield. Neymar had a penalty shout that was rightly waved off by the referee, whereas Messi seemed to have a legitimate shout for another penalty ruled out. Amidst all this, Ivan Rakitić, who was having a very sound game in the middle, switched off momentarily. Kurzawa won the header after Rakitic failed to read it, and knocked it down into the path of Cavani. The shot was a half-volley, tearing into the roof of the net.
The sudden goal felt like a punch in the gut. All of that incredible work done so far by the Blaugrana was at the danger of slowly crumbling away, threatening to shift the momentum. It would have been a death knell moments later when Cavani once again found himself face-to-face with Marc-André ter Stegen, PSG suddenly looking charged. The young German found his Manuel Neuer moment in time, sticking out a boot to deflect the ball away from the corner post.
Barcelona had no choice but to throw everything they had into the game, and Iniesta came off for Arda Turan. Getting four goals to have a chance was one thing, but to get six was madness. It seemed for a while as if the stadium sensed this too, as a strange silence descended over Camp Nou, the crowd eerily aware that the game was beginning to stretch beyond them and their players. Unai Emery, aware of what was necessary, took off Julian Draxler and sent Serge Aurier on. Meunier was now moved up to the flanks while Aurier took up the right back position. A minute later, Sergi Roberto came on for Rafinha, the only thing surprising about it being how long it took for the change, given that Rafinha was forced to come onto his stronger left foot often, when the need was for him to take it on his right and swing the ball into the area with speed.
Barcelona rampaged ahead again, like men who could not bear to lay down arms while chasing what was looking like a lost cause. The silence around the stadium was haunting at times, that electricity in the air that pervaded before the Cavani goal replaced by the sinking feeling of the clock moving closer to the end. It was the 88th minute when Neymar was fouled and took up his position to take a free kick to Trapp’s right. Neymar shot in a long arc, just low and precise to nestle into Trapp’s top right corner, making the goalkeeper a mere spectator of the brilliance, unable to make a movement.
Neymar had sprung to life, like he always did, and became the one constant attacking force in that Barcelona line-up who never gave up, not even when they were losing 4-0 in Paris. A minute later he was at it again, as Suárez made the most of a contact – if you could even call it that – that Marquinhos would rather not watch in replays. As the long ball was looping into the box, the Brazilian defender chose to concentrate solely on Suárez, which proved costly. Neymar took position once again, and sent it neatly into the net.
Barcelona was level here on 5-5 aggregate, but PSG still had that crucial away goal. It was close, but time wasn’t on their side. Piqué joined up front, moving about and becoming the focal point of crosses, like an auxiliary centre forward. And soon, ter Stegen joined him, the priorities becoming clearer with each passing minute.
Sergi Roberto had one of his worst nights in Paris, frequently exposing the right flank through which PSG had attacked, so it was somewhat akin to maintaining the balance in the universe that he should have a say in how this match ended for good. Neymar struck a free kick that dipped as it reached the penalty area, and Roberto had sneaked past the PSG defence to guide the softest of volleys past Trapp and into the net.
The Camp Nou erupted in rapturous celebrations, the crowd barely able to believe what they had just witnessed. There were tears, bear hugs, and the sight of Barcelona’s touchline jumping with unbridled joy, running to the players and falling on top of another, a giant heap of Blaugrana players who needed that moment desperately. Messi was seen rushing to the fans, standing up on a barricade and baring his emotions to them in a way that is rarely seen from him.
Luis Enrique was seen sprinting down the touchline; his face a beautiful mixture of astonishment and joy at the spectacle he had seen unfold in what would otherwise have been his last European night with Barcelona. It was not to be. Sergi Roberto, in many ways a player Enrique has moulded himself, had to be the one capping it all off. Neymar had punched PSG hard and knocked them out when it appeared Barcelona were done, creating one and scoring two when three goals were needed in a span of seven minutes. Luis Suárez had started it, PSG had crumbled slowly, and Neymar had carried them over the line. For a change, the Camp Nou faithful had a new messiah, the unstoppable, silky Brazilian who had done the impossible in those seven minutes. It’s still barely believable, but such is the power of sport; to make believers out of the hard-nosed naysayers.
🔴🔵 Orgulho 🙌. Obrigado CAMP NOU!
— André Gomes (@aftgomes) March 8, 2017
“If they can score four, we can score six” Luis Enrique had remarked in the pre-match press conference. It’s hard to say that anyone believed him, but Barcelona had done it. The delirium at the touchline was a sight to behold. Enrique could barely speak, he wanted to…but words fumbled in his mouth, the head still reconciling the barely believable sight that had unfolded. He needed this, so did the team. “This is a sport for crazy people, a unique sport. Any kid who was in the Camp Nou tonight will never forget this in their life. It was a torrent of feelings. I don’t cry – I would like to, but the tears don’t come out. But I enjoyed this as much as the rest; as much as those who cried.”
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 8, 2017
Luis Enrique will still depart at the end of the season, but he could not have asked for a better parting gift from his players, a show of confidence and commitment that was much needed given the events since that first leg defeat. The night featured the most captivating football match that we will ever see, with history being made. But the defining images of the night were those of Luis Enrique, running onto the pitch as the last goal went in…screaming, leaping, and embracing everyone in his path. They had lost themselves a month ago in Paris, and now, at home, they have found themselves again. So has Luis Enrique.