For years Paris Saint-Germain have spared no expense in their efforts to realize their dream of winning the Champions League. For years they’ve failed, putting out attack-minded teams that crush domestic foes in Ligue 1 but consistently come up short in the competition they really want to win. And while this was just one game and in the Round of 16, PSG’s total destruction of Barcelona by a score of 4-0 is the first time those UCL trophy aspirations have felt attainable.
This was one of those games where the stark scoreline was a perfectly accurate reflection of the match’s one-sided nature. PSG outclassed Barcelona in every phase of the game. When Barça had the ball, PSG clogged up the center of the pitch and pressed their opponents extremely high, preventing the Spanish side from building threatening attacks. When Paris had possession of the ball—which usually occurred soon after one of their players barged into a Barça player and stole it, or intercepted a bad pass they’d forced by cutting off any and all passing lanes—they’d bomb forward and slice apart Barcelona’s defense like a hot knife running through a soft apple. PSG took 16 shots tonight, more than double Barcelona’s meek seven attempts. It was a bloodbath from beginning to end.
Ángel Di María was the game’s standout performer. He opened scoring with a perfectly struck free kick 18 minutes in, and throughout the match challenged Barça’s back line with his relentless running.
Di María’s goal was maybe a little fortunate (free kicks are fairly low-percentage chances, after all, and Barcelona’s wall didn’t do a great job at attempting to deflect a shot from such close range), but the second, scored a few minutes before halftime by Julian Draxler, was more indicative of just how dominant PSG were.
Lionel Messi—dropping all the way from the forward line to the defensive midfielder’s area in an effort to take the ball from defense to attack, which none of his nearly non-existent midfield teammates could do—got overly ambitious in trying to dribble through Adrien Rabiot. Rabiot muscled Messi off the ball, and the perfectly positioned Marco Verratti was there to pick up the pieces. The Italian midfielder then orchestrated PSG’s counter, picking out Draxler from a number of streaking teammates he had in support against the prone Barça defense, and Draxler did what he’s done so well since coming to Paris in January:
Rather than recuperating at the break and maybe trying something different to fix things, Barça looked as flat and helpless in the second half as they had the first. Ten minutes after the restart, Di María scored his second, an emasculating banger from outside the box that cemented the game:
Even after that, Barcelona couldn’t come up with an answer. Barcelona haven’t been playing well for weeks now, and arguably haven’t had a sustained spell of consistently good performances all year. The team’s midfield seemed broken tonight, the same way it’s looked so often this season. In part because of Messi’s reluctance/inability to do any real defensive work, Barça have set up in a kind of 4-4-2 formation when out of possession. This makes what normally would be the right-sided central midfielder in the team’s usual 4-3-3 formation have to play more as an auxiliary right winger, covering both for Messi’s and Roberto’s defensive shortcomings, making it difficult to add much to the team’s possession and attacking game. This, coupled with Ivan Rakitić’s poor play (though it’s still hard to understand why he didn’t start tonight) all year, and midfielder-turned-right back Sergi Roberto’s limitations (he’s not that fast, is only decent-to-solid defensively, and contributes very little in attack), the entire structure of Barcelona’s team has been a mess.
Manager Luis Enrique was brilliant in his first season in charge, finding a playing style that got the best out of Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez, but his inability to create a greater team structure that makes his attacking line’s job easier is why he probably won’t be returning as coach when his contract is up this summer. When a Barcelona team with the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and Messi finds it hard to string together more than a couple accurate passes, you know something is wrong with the team’s tactics that aren’t giving them enough good passing options.
By the end of tonight’s game, PSG fully killed off not just the game but also the entire two-leg tie with a late Edinson Cavani goal. It was one of the biggest victories in the nouveau riche club’s history, and was the exact kind of game they’ve been trying to put together for so long.
The French team got rid of manager Laurent Blanc, despite him cruising to the league title in each of his three seasons in charge, and installed former Sevilla boss Unai Emery before the season to shake things up. Emery isn’t known for his beautiful, expressive style of play, but he has proven himself a master at building teams specifically designed to win big games in European competition. It’s not an accident that he’s won each of the last three Europa League trophies with his press-hungry, defensively impenetrable Sevilla teams, while at the same time failing to regularly compete as well in league play.
Make no mistake: PSG still have a long way to go. The team hasn’t played very well at all in Ligue 1, where they currently sit in second place behind Monaco. (Second place might not seem like anything to scoff at, but with how much money this club has spent in comparison to their opponents in France over the years, PSG have no excuse not to win the title by at least 20 points every season.) While they’ll definitely—barring an absolute catastrophe—progress to the next round of the Champions League, it is still very early in that competition, too. They are by no means favorites to win the trophy, even if Europe lacks a truly great team this season that would deserve Champions League favorite status. What’s important, though, is that for the first time during this new era of super-rich PSG, it finally looks like the team is actually headed where they’ve always wanted to go.