More than 90,000 Barcelona fans crammed into the Camp Nou in hope of seeing their side make a miraculous turnaround against Paris Saint-Germain last night; they ended up getting two comebacks for the price of one.
No team had ever overcome a 4-0 first-leg defeat in the history of the Champions League, and Barça were down and out again when Edinson Cavani’s 62nd minute goal left them needing six.
“While there is a 1 per cent chance, we have 99 percent faith,” Brazilian forward Neymar wrote on Instagram following his side’s humiliation at the Parc des Princes.
He appeared to be imploring fans not to give up on them just yet, to believe that, while a comeback would be incredibly difficult, it was not beyond the means of this incredibly gifted team.
It seemed to work too, as the Blaugrana's supporters were behind their side right from the off, and all of the pre-game media talk suggested that, were it any other team, there would be no hope of a recovery, but this is the great Barcelona.
Even so, with two minutes to play they needed three goals, and somehow they got them. So how did they do it?
Pressing, Positioning and Patience
Luis Enrique decided to send out his team in the 3-4-3 formation that he has be trialling in recent weeks.
Unlike the way Antonio Conte’s Chelsea play 3-4-3, Enrique’s system uses a diamond shaped midfield in the same way that Pep Guadiola did in his final season at the Camp Nou in order to fit Cesc Fàbregas into his team, and like how Johan Cruyff’s Barça “Dream Team” would often be set up.
With Lionel Messi playing centrally at the highest pint of the diamond, just behind Luis Suárez, Rafinha started on the right side of the front three and Neymar provided width on the left.
However, as soon as the game kicked off, it became apparent that Enrique had instructed Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić to push high up the pitch from their midfield roles, slotting in between the wingers and the central striker.
Rather than simply adding a greater attacking presence, the two midfielders were positioned this way in order to press the opposition, enabling Barça to ensure that the ball remained penned in the final third of the pitch.
HEATMAP: Barcelona's back-three spent more time in PSG's half their own tonight. ?
In Barcelona's half (49%)
In PSG's half (51%) pic.twitter.com/hd4mf9S0oW
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 8, 2017
The Catalan side were diligent and tenacious in their closing-down duties, and forced their visitors into hurriedly playing imprecise passes, gifting possession back to swarming Spanish champions.
Such a high-tempo start was absolutely crucial to Barça’s hopes of turning the tie around, and when Suárez looped a close-range header over Kevin Trapp to put his side ahead on the night in the third minute, everyone inside the stadium started to sense that perhaps the impossible dream was not quite so impossible after all.
However, key to Barça’s ability to overturn the deficit was their patience on the ball; at no point did they feel the need to rush. The early goal had given them the chance to take their time and play their game. They had 87 minutes to score three times; there was no need to try and force the issue in the opening half an hour.
Rather than take one too many risks and open themselves up to a potentially deadly counter-attack, Enrique’s men were careful in possession, knowing that if they moved the ball around as they do so well, the chances would come.
With Iniesta and Rakitić operating in advanced zones, Neymar and Rafinha were tasked with staying as wide as possible to stretch the PSG backline.
The latter, in particular, was finding acres of space where the errant Layvin Kurzawa should have been patrolling, but the left-footed Brazilian too often failed to deliver a telling centre on his weaker side.
Iniesta capitalised on lax defending to force Kurzawa to slice the ball into his own net in the 40th minute. Early in the second half, the Spanish midfield maestro combined with Neymar down the left leading to PSG right-back Thomas Meunier losing his balance and bringing down the No.11 inside the area.
Messi converted from the spot; five minutes into the second half, Barça were 3-0 up and the comeback looked a near certainty. The French side were camped on the edge of their own penalty area and unable to escape thanks to the buzzing Barcelona press. But then disaster struck.
With an hour played, Gerard Piqué sauntered into the PSG half, trying to dribble beyond three opponents only to lose the ball and expose his side to a counter. Taking one for the team, Rakitić accepted a booking in order to halt the breakaway on the halfway line.
However, from the resultant free-kick, the Croatian international failed to track Kurzawa’s run as the set-piece was floated into the Barça box. The French full-back’s knockdown was met by a thunderous strike from Cavani, who had fired a warning shot minutes earlier by hitting the outside of the post.
Ter Stegen was beaten and so too, it seemed, were Barcelona. They had given themselves every hope of digging their way out of the chasm they fell into in Paris, but three goals in the final half an hour – without conceding any more – seemed a stretch too far.
Neymar Took Command
As the clock ticked into the 88th minute, the home side still needed to score three. When Neymar whipped a stunning free-kick into the top corner, it seemed little more than a consolation.
The Brazilian superstar had other ideas, though. He had been the one carrying the fight to Unai Emery’s men all evening, refusing to give up in spite of the mammoth task his team faced.
In the final minute of normal time, Suárez made the most of minimal contact in the area from Marquinhos. The referee again pointed to the spot, and this time, rather than Messi, it was Neymar who stepped up and showed nerves of steel to roll the ball into the bottom corner.
Neymar Jr, ladies and gentlemen ? pic.twitter.com/NsDhvCbguM
— B/R Football (@brfootball) March 9, 2017
It’s the hope that kills. By now, one minute of the five allocated for stoppage-time had already elapsed. The atmosphere inside the Camp Nou swelled with expectation, but the Catalans seemed destined for disappointment as the clock ticked down mercilessly.
Ter Stegen had come up to join the attack as the Barcelona onslaught continued, but PSG kept clearing their lines. The German goalkeeper even managed to win the ball back in the opposition’s half to prevent a fatal break, earning a free-kick for his efforts. One last chance to lump it forward; the German stayed up.
Neymar’s free-kick was cleared, but only as far as the Brazilian. Collecting the ball wide on the right, where most players would have hit it hopefully back into the crowded box, he showed a level of composure and clarity of thought that separates the mere mortals from the godly in such high-pressure scenarios.
He faked a cross and then cut inside, opening up an angle for a straight ball into the area, with several Barça players breaking forward as PSG aimed to push up and catch them offside.
With his weaker left-foot, Neymar delicately chipped the ball over the French backline, aiming to meet the run of Sergi Roberto.
The midfielder-cum-full-back, a second-half substitute, stretched to connect with the dropping ball, outfoxing Trapp to seal one of the most historic comebacks of all time.
Enrique’s tactics had given Barcelona a chance in the opening hour, but it was the brilliance and persistence of Neymar that turned the tide.
The Barça coach, who announced last week that he will leave the club at the end of the season, was humbled by what he and his side had achieved.
“I was brought to my knees,” he said after the game.
“I don't think anyone stopped believing. After seeing them sit back despite the goal, the team were incredible.”
It is true and more than fair to point out that an utter collapse from PSG and a questionable penalty decision aided this miraculous recovery, but Barcelona’s performance will live long in the memory; they rode their luck but deserve all of the credit for keeping faith in their abilities.
“This is a unique sport. Unique,” Enrique continued. “I can only imagine the children coming tonight, a night they'll never forget.”