2nd August 1970- the day Paris Saint Germain was born.
8th may, 2017- the day Paris Saint-Germain were going to finally turn adult with a standout victory against one of the biggest powerhouses of global football.
The damage inflicted on the Barcelona team by the 4-0 away loss was so much that in their immediate next game, a certain Leo Messi decided not to celebrate with a stone-cold face after smacking home a vital winning penalty in the dying seconds against Leganes. The belief was invisible in the Barcelona camp and the press conferences became just attempts to give out an impression to others that all is well at Camp Nou while evidently, it was not. PSG’s victory, just like Bayern’s 3 years ago was an attack on Barcelona’s philosophy of beautiful football. With 57% of possession, Barca managed to fashion out just 1 shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. PSG had 10 of them. In attacking third, both had an identical passing success of 69.5%. Unai Emery had delivered a masterclass. PSG’s constant pressure on the ball and the counterattacks had all but buried Barcelona out of the UCL, the first time Barca would have exited from this stage after losing to Liverpool in 2007. From here, it was supposed to be a smooth sailing for the Paris players. It was supposed to be a message for the teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico, Juventus, Dortmund. Even after beating Chelsea twice in the last two Champions Leagues and putting up fine performances against Real Madrid (0-0 home draw and 0-1 away loss), they were not exactly a daunting prospect for the big teams in the knockout stage. Even in an on and off season, Barca started as the overwhelming favourites.
So, what exactly went wrong for PSG? What made the world watch in disbelief one of the most epic comebacks of all time as well as surely the worst bottle job of all time? The answers to this question cannot be found in the action of just the 90+8 minutes on the pitch yesterday. It dates back to a decade of dominance from Barca. Not many teams have come to Camp Nou and stopped Barca from achieving what they wanted to achieve. After the game against Leganes, Barca eked out a 1-2 away victory against Atletico and then followed it up with 6-1 and 5-0 scorelines against Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo. Either of these scorelines on Wednesday night would have seen them qualify for the next round. Unai Emery and his players took notice. Probably, noticed it a bit more than it deserved.
Veratti said, “For them, scoring four goals at home is almost normal. They are going to leave spaces, and that is when we must take advantage of them. We will also have to remember the matches we lost there. These are not good memories for us, but they are matches that made us grow. At the beginning, we were a little impressed by this stadium, by this team, by the Champions League… this is no longer the because now we too have experience.” While Suarez and Enrique told that Barca CAN score six goals if required, Matuidi came up with- “A Last 16 tie in the Champions League against Barcelona at the Camp Nou…it’s the stuff of dreams!”
There is a thin line between lack of self-belief and respect. In a bid to show the latter, somehow the line was crossed and the fear hidden in the statements came to the fore during the course of the match. From the first minute, Barca applied pressure with a 3-4-3 formation, the three-man defence line parked near the centre of the pitch, with the likes of Pique and Mascherano advancing to the opponent box for fun. The Blaugranas was out to restore lost pride and teach a lesson to the wannabe big boys. PSG players were afraid – afraid of what may happen. Funnily enough, faced with the pressure, they attempted to show that they were not under pressure. Ten players were behind the ball but they roamed casually, allowing Rafinha to put in a dangerous ball in the box. For some unknown reason, Trapp then decided not to pursue a high ball which should have been an easy gathering or punch for him. There were seven more PSG players inside the box but none of them saw the threat of Suarez, resulting in a chaotic, yet fantastic poacher’s goal. Yes, in the end, whether clumsy or not, it all counts. In the 17th minute, Neymar almost capitalised on that casual approach again to attempt a curler under no pressure at all. It flew just wide of the post.
In the most fatal tactical mistake of his career, Emery had instructed his players to play out from the back, forgetting the basic defence job of clearing the lines and not giving away possession in dangerous areas. After presenting multiple opportunities to the home side through uncharacteristic attempts to play out from the back, PSG finally conceded the second goal before the half time when Marquinhos inexplicably tried to play juggling in his own box (yes, you read that right) under pressure from Iniesta at a distance of 2 yards from goal. Iniesta snatched it. A backheel from him and a sliced clearance from Kurzawa did the rest.
Emery had identified the suicidal threat in PSG’s game of inviting pressure by now. In Second half, PSG came out with a more direct approach. But a ridiculous penalty given away by Thomas Meunier’s head or Shoulder meant they were losing 3-0 on the night, with the lead cut down to a slim one-goal. The introduction of Di Maria, however, injected the necessary spark in the game and when Cavani scored at the hour mark, it was well and truly game over. Or that is what everybody except Neymar thought, including the Barca players, according to Veratti. 3 goals to score in the last 30 minutes- all good work done on the night seemed to vanish without any reward for Barcelona. Even when Cavani and Di Maria missed one-on-one chances, nobody blinked. PSG thought they had done enough and in an attempt to see out the last phase of the game, they did the same error they committed in the first half- sitting deep, inviting pressure, trying to keep possession and losing the ball at dangerous areas trying to play out from the back. In between Neymar’s 4th goal in the 87th minute and the end of the game (95 min), PSG completed just 4 passes, 3 of which came from the kick-offs after Barca’s 3 goals.The free-kick from Neymar was world-class. The dive from Suarez – more so. On a certain fateful night in 2010, the Uruguayan did not even bother taking one red card for the team, clearing the ball from the goal-line blatantly with his hand. There is no reason to think that he should have even a bit of remorse for doing what he did yesterday. He should not. A professional player’s job is to be what the team needs him to be. He won it for his team that day in 2010, he won it again yesterday. There have rightly been question-marks over the referee’s role, though. Unlike in the case of the other penalty, he decided not to consult the goal-line official this time, in spite of being on a tough angle and in spite of Suarez having already been booked for diving before. Instead, he awarded a penalty on his own. At 5-1, PSG had only themselves to blame.
With an extra time of 5 minutes and with a mad crowd cheering on, the winning goal was almost inevitable. 3 goals in 8 minutes- Mes que en Club’s remarkable turnaround was complete. Not that they deserved anything less. After all the energy, passion, creativity and also professionalism shown on the pitch, it would have perhaps been injustice had Barca failed to progress.
That does not change the fact that PSG was like one of those schoolboys, who when faced with the pressure of exams, decide to stop studying and act cool to convince themselves and others that everything is under control, only to end up failing the exam. They made a mockery of the favourites tag twice, but only after the tag had switched sides. Uefa Champions league round of 16 is supposed to exhibit football matches of a certain quality. But last day, it was all about “Cheap thrills” – good for spreading temporary excitement but devoid of any quality – a bunch of boys from Paris have entered a men’s competition by mistake. Barca’s comeback may well be the greatest in the history of football. PSG’s capitulation was SURELY the worst and the most shameful one ever witnessed. Football has probably taken a step back with mentally weak players trying to play their unnatural game in a natural way on the biggest stage. It will be interesting to watch when PSG can land European glory. And if yesterday’s naivety was any indication, they won’t be winning this title even in a hundred years. They should not. An unknown wise man once said, “Don’t imprison your enemy, kill them.”-That man would have done a better job than Mr. Emery last night. The performance of the referee surely showed why Video refereeing is the need of the hour. Had all the decisions been taken correctly, the result could well have been different. But it will probably take many more f**king disgraces for video refereeing to be finally adopted. However, as of yesterday, this excuse is something even the PSG players themselves found tough to mention because it is tough to laugh at a joke when you yourself are the protagonist of that joke. As PSG’s official website went into mourning today, declaring in bold letters “SPEECHLESS”, there is every chance it is a typo or autocorrect for “SPINELESS”. Pray for Paris, pray that the boys grow up to be men quickly.