Barcelona have undoubtedly placed one step into the Champions League semi-finals as they swept aside French champions PSG at the Parc des Princes
Luis Enrique recalled Javier Mascherano alongside Gerard Pique at centre-back, while Martin Montoya slotted in at right back for the suspended Dani Alves.
Laurent Blanc was forced into several changes with Adrien Rabiot and Yohan Cabaye starting in midfield for Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s suspension meant Edinson Cavani started upfront, while Marquinhos formed a centre-back partnership with Thiago Silva.
Both sides relied on direct dribbling to make up for their non-existing creativity in midfield, but this was a matter of Barcelona’s ruthless front three executing the few chances created over 90 minutes.
When the Champions League quarterfinal draw concluded a few weeks ago, it was evident that PSG – Barcelona would be one of the marquee match ups at this stage. However, this was the fifth showdown in three years between the two clubs, which left many anticipating a cagey encounter.
PSG initially approached the match with caution. The home side dropped into two banks of four with Blaise Matuidi and Ezequiel Lavezzi sitting narrow, while Cavani, and occasionally Cabaye, stepped forward to press Sergio Busquets. Blanc’s intent to stifle Barcelona’s build up from the back involved negating service to the Spaniard, but his side equally benefited from Messi’s positioning across the pitch.
Messi started on the right as expected, but his persistence to drift into central areas was peculiar considering PSG’s narrow positioning. With Alves unavailable, Barca was deprived of width down the right, and the threat of makeshift right back Montoya was scarce. Perhaps Messi wanted to increase his impact on the match and serve as a link (he was involved in the opener) but PSG’s shape limited his threat from open play.
Initially, Gregory Van der Wiel and Maxwell stuck tight to Neymar and Messi, but when the latter dropped deeper into central positions to receive the ball, Matuidi surged forward to apply pressure. In reality, Blanc’s approach was effective, as Barcelona encountered difficulties creating legitimate chances in the final third. The centre backs, and full backs stuck close to Barca’s front three, Cavani and Cabaye pressed Busquets and Matuidi tracked Messi when he moved into central areas.
PSG down the left.
Where Barca struggled to create chances from open play, Blanc’s side focused on the away side’s weakest point in the opening half. With Messi reluctant, or perhaps not instructed to protect Montoya, Maxwell received ample space to charge into when PSG held possession. Here, Maxwell recorded the highest passing combination with Matuidi and Pastore, who were also positioned on the left.
Ivan Rakitic appeared to be the man responsible for drifting over to the left to prevent overloads, yet Matuidi and Maxwell still played key roles in creating the French side’s best opportunities. It took seven minutes for the duo to charge down the left channel, but Javier Pastore mishit the Frenchman’s pull back.
Arguably PSG’s best chance of the first half also stemmed down this flank with Matuidi storming forward on the break before playing a pass to the rampaging Lavezzi, who pulled back and squared the ball to Cavani free on goal, but his hesitation enabled Javier Mascherano to make a vital last ditch interception.
Maxwell’s freedom and Montoya’s selection were key factors in PSG trying to exploit possible fragility down the left, but a combination of poor decision making and the quality of the deliveries prevented the French side from harming Barca.
Based on Messi’s high standard, the Argentine enjoyed a quiet night in open play. The aforementioned congestion in central areas, along with Messi’s intent on drifting into these zones played a factor, but his mazy direct runs to goal served as Barca’s sole threat in the opening half.
Ultimately Messi was the catalyst behind Neymar’s opener, but Barca’s sharpness and intelligence to quickly break on the counter highlights one of many changes under Enrique.
Busquets dispossessed Rabiot and quickly played the ball to Iniesta, who found Messi in a pocket of space in midfield. PSG, as a unit, were caught out of position, as Messi drove at Thiago Silva and played the ball wide to an unmarked Neymar, who calmly notched a vital away goal.
Overall, Barca’s build up and attacking play was poor, but considering the tight marking Messi received out wide, his decision to move infield was largely based on influencing the match and dragging defenders out of position to create space for his teammates. The opener highlighted Barca’s swift transitions – which have improved weekly – but it equally offered the Catalan side penetration in central areas.
Xavi/PSG goes 4-2-3-1
The pattern remained the same in the second half until Xavi slotted into midfield for the injured Iniesta, whereas Lucas Moura replaced Rabiot, pushing Matuidi into the double-pivot and Pastore behind Cavani. The French side was persistent to push men forward in attack, but as a whole they lost structure and balance.
Xavi has often been used this season – a perfect example would be the recent Clasico – to kill off games in the latter stages of matches. Here, the Spaniard was integral to Barca’s second half dominance alongside Busquets. PSG’s formation alteration equally negated their initial approach out of possession, which offered freedom to Barca’s ball playing midfielders in central areas.
In a sense Blanc’s decision to gamble at the half hour mark proved beneficial to Barca – PSG’s threat down the left was thwarted, and the away side received space to exploit in the middle and final third.
Final 25 minutes
The second goal ultimately destroyed the tie. Suarez was kept quiet due to proactive pressing from Marquinhos and David Luiz for large portions of the match, but Luiz’s arrival provided a sense of recklessness. The media heavily scrutinizes Luiz’s subpar defending, and although the Brazilian wasn’t fully fit, Suarez’s movement was integral to both second half Barca goals.
First, Suarez cleverly nutmegged the Brazilian when he drifted into the right channel to receive Montoya’s pass, before skipping past Marquinhos and Maxwell to fire a tame effort past Salvatore Sirigu. Then a simple one-two between Suarez and Mascherano dragged Marquinhos out of position, setting the latter free to run past Luiz and expertly notch Barca’s third goal.
Perhaps both Barca goals represent Luiz’s poor judgment and rash defending, but PSG’s move to a 4-2-3-1 thwarted their cohesive pressing, thus leaving ample space vacant for the away side to kill the game. Blanc’s men scored a fortuitous consolation goal in the final 10 minutes to provide hope for a second leg fight back, but the options on the bench limited the French manager’s flexibility. Of the few breaks PSG received down the channels, most were thwarted by the imperious Mascherano.
Enrique relied on Jeremy Mathieu and Adriano for improved defensive solidity, and Pastore’s role in a deeper position in the final minutes created Barca’s sole second half scare, but both substitutes made key last ditch interventions to deny PSG a second goal. Suarez’s movement and dribbling bamboozled PSG’s back-line on two separate occasions, and once PSG strayed away from their initial defensive approach; his ruthless finishing made the difference.
Barcelona’s display epitomized the side’s identity under Enrique. The away side didn’t dominate the match in terms of possession – until PSG altered their shape – and relied on direct individual breaks and clinical finishing from their front three to sweep aside the French champions.
PSG’s initial defensive approach effectively limited Barca’s threat in attacking zones, but apart from quick breaks, predominantly down the left, the French side weren’t overly convincing in the final third. In terms of defensive structure and overall pressing, Blanc’s gamble backfired as the players looked unsure of their defensive duties, and their use of possession lacked direction.
Returning players should bolster PSG’s XI and improve the French side’s overall performance, but Blanc’s men face an uphill task at the Camp Nou.
The Barca front three were far from convincing with Neymar struggling to get the better of Van der Wiel, Messi’s movement into a congested central area limiting his influence, and Suarez getting the better of Luiz when PSG chased the game. Still, intent on maximizing the talent of three world class attackers – individually, Barca’s most impressive front line – and improved defensive structure has transitioned the Catalan side into heavy favourites to win the tie, tournament, and achieve a historic treble.