The most revelatory story that emerged before today’s Barcelona-PSG Champions League rematch was a funny little nugget about Barcelona’s outsized confidence in their impending victory.
This Barça team has been in relatively dire straits for much of the season. Because they have the best forward line ever assembled, they’ve won lots and lots of games. Nonetheless, they haven’t won as much or in as assured a fashion as should be expected of a team armed with the best forward line ever, buttressed by a bunch of world-class teammates behind them.
What passes for a bad stretch of results for this group—failing to win three of six matches in all competitions, including an embarrassing 4-0 blowout to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Round of 16 matchup—led, a couple weeks ago, to a full-blown (and not entirely unjustified) freakout. The papers spilled gallons of ink printing believable claims that the players were fed up with the unimaginative and constraining playing system they’d been set up in; reports had Lionel Messi gazing longingly at the club’s front door; and manager Luis Enrique made the official announcement that he would be stepping down from his position at the end of the season. This group that won every single trophy just two years ago, two of the big three trophies last year, and was the favorite in the three major tournaments this season mere weeks ago was on the precipice of a total breakdown.
And yet, there was this story about just how certain the Barça players were of their ability to pull off an unprecedented comeback. A Catalan radio station had the report yesterday, which alleged that Neymar had bet his teammates that he was going to score two goals against PSG in the return leg. He didn’t just wager that Barça would Do It, nor did he predict a ridiculous hypothetical scoreline of something like 7-0 as a way of communicating an air of loose positivity to help everyone buy into the belief that the gang could get the job done if they just trust in themselves and don’t worry so much; no, Neymar made an audacious yet attainable and specific personal promise to slice half of the deficit by himself. I’m bringing two goals, you can bet on that. Now it’s just up to the rest of you to chip in two or three more and we’re there. He wasn’t playing; he was planning.
Let’s try to make perfectly clear why the odds of the comeback we all just witnessed were so damn impossible. For the mere right to extend the game by another thirty minutes of extra time, Barcelona would’ve needed to beat PSG by a score of 4-0. Beating a team 4-0 is in any circumstance a difficult proposition. Doing so against a great team like PSG is that much more daunting. But it’s the nature of the two-legged knockout round tie that made PSG’s 4-0 lead such especially imposing of a mountain to climb.
In a normal league game, if Team A, say, goes up by two goals on Team B with 20 minutes left to play, Team B knows they’re probably going to come away empty-handed. Pull a goal back of their own, and it’ll still be really hard to get the second to steal a point. Give up one or two more and who cares—losing is losing. No team wants to be embarrassed, of course, and there’s always a slim chance that Team B could rattle off a few goals and eke out a point or three. Still, the entire mindset in a situation like this—down by more than a goal late in a match—is that the game is pretty much over and thus nothing that happens from there on out is all that big of a deal. Thus, capitulating to the scoreboard and losing 4-0 isn’t terribly uncommon.
A match like today’s in a knockout round is completely different, though. If Team B enters the second leg with a four goal lead from the first one, they have all the reason in the world to try their damnedest from minute 1 to minute 90, even in the worst case scenario. Give up one goal, and Team B still has to fuck up three more times before they’re really at risk. Even down two with 20 minutes remaining, there’s still everything to play for; Team B is still in great shape to come out the other side of the tie. And should Team B score a single all-important away goal of their own, Team A would have to score six times in order to win. To imagine that it’s even possible to start from such an enormously advantageous position and see that lead slip away is preposterous.
Now, for anyone who knows anything about soccer, all of this math is instinctive. In most circumstances, that a 4-0 lead after the first leg of a tie like this all but guarantees progression to the next round is too obvious of a statement to even bother making. And yet, like Barcelona’s players, so many people went against all notions of reason and logic and believed that Barcelona had a legitimate shot to come back and win. This tells you all you need to know about what this team is capable of.
Man alive, Barcelona just beat PSG 6-1. There are no words to sum up how crazy this is. When Luis Suárez flipped in the opening goal with the back of his head in the third minute, it still felt like Barça had only a glimmer of hope to come back.
Even after their second, an ugly looking own goal just before halftime, it didn’t exactly feel like the full-on comeback was imminent.
For much of the match, Barcelona’s principal magic-maker Lionel Messi stood idly in the center of the pitch, bracketed by a swarm of PSG players shadowing his every move. On top of that, Barcelona as a whole weren’t playing all that impressively. It was their energy and determination and self-belief that made them so formidable and the game so enthralling, not the brilliance of the actual play. And it wasn’t until the 50th minute, when Neymar drew a penalty that Messi then converted, that the comeback felt entirely real and plausible.
(I’d like to take a moment out here to send a shout out the assistant referee for making the aforementioned penalty call. It looked like the head ref was going to ignore the blatant foul on Neymar right then, swallowing his whistle in a big moment the way so many refs do, shirking his duty to enforce the game’s rules so as to not “become part of the story” or whatever. Not calling that penalty would’ve been very easy and very wrong. That the assistant overruled the head ref and insisted that there had in fact been a foul was brave and just. Good job.)
At that point, Barcelona had 40 minutes to get just one more goal and ensure at least extra time. Barcelona’s players looked hungry and confident, while PSG’s appeared terrified by the prospect of suffering the worst collapse in the history of European continental competition.
Then, with a little under a half an hour left, Edinson Cavani scored and changed the match’s whole complexion. Barça really began to keep numbers forward once they were one goal away from tying things up on aggregate, and PSG feasted on this open space in front of their opponent’s defense on Cavani’s goal:
Cavani made the score 3-1, and it felt like it was to be the match’s key moment. In one instant, Barcelona went from being just one goal away from leveling things to needing to score three more times or they’d lose. The air of expectation and hope that suffused the stadium until that point was sucked out once Cavani scored, and the true force of a 4-0 first leg lead once again reasserted itself.
If fans and neutrals watching the game felt like the gig was finally up, that the dream had officially died once and for all, the players sure didn’t. Neymar, you may remember, still had that bet to make good on.
It took him a while to get his chance, but in the 88th minute Neymar surprised the goalkeeper by shooting rather than crossing the ball from a free kick at a tough angle and slung the ball into the near post net. That made it 4-1, with just two minutes and stoppage time to go. Barça still needed two more goals to win the tie. Neymar got his bet-covering second goal a couple minutes later, after taking a penalty that Suárez won at the very end of regulation. (In contrast to the good refereeing that saw Barça’s first penalty given, I must point out that this was bad refereeing that gave them the second penalty. The contact that preceded Suárez throwing himself to the ground was very soft.)
And so there Barcelona found themselves—a single goal away from victory, from the biggest comeback this storied tournament has ever seen, and from realizing the impossible. With nearly all five minutes of stoppage time expired, keeper Marc-André ter Stegen, who’d joined the throng of bodies in PSG’s penalty area for a set piece just before this, won a foul while finding the ball at his feet as he retreated back to the Barça goal. Neymar took the ensuing free kick, which PSG cleared. The clearance found its way back to Neymar.
With the ball at his feet in the center-right channel of the pitch, the Brazilian winger feigned setting up a cross with his strong right foot, and got the man guarding him to bite as Neymar cut back to his left. There, on his weaker foot, knowing that this was probably the last chance Barcelona would get to rescue the tie and maybe even their season, Neymar lofted in another cross. The ball found Sergi Roberto of all people, and the midfielder-cum-right back poked the ball in. The impossible job had been completed.
There are about a million different big-picture things to take away from this game. In Luis Enrique’s newfound, funky, I-guess-you’d-call-it-a-3-4-3? formation, Barcelona are thriving in a way they haven’t in a long time. With the stress of living up to the insanely demanding standards the team and manager are held to alleviated after Luis Enrique’s announcement that he would be leaving at the end of the season, Barcelona seem relaxed and happy in a way they haven’t in a long time. With Barcelona’s back to the wall and it being Neymar, not Messi, who they looked to to save the day, maybe we’ve seen the first glimpse of the future where this team is more Neymar’s than Messi’s.
For me, though, what’s most impressive about everything that happened was that confidence. The biggest thing I’ll remember about this era of Barça is their fight, the way they literally never quit. This more than anything else is the legacy of Luis Enrique. Maybe even more than any of the games or trophies he won during the treble of his first season, this single match encapsulates the team as he has constructed it—one in his own image.
Barcelona were on the brink of total ruin midway through this manager’s first season, but they kept fighting and believing and eventually won everything. In his second campaign, Barcelona played even better during their mid-season peak, and when coming upon a late season, fatigue-borne mini-crisis, they kept fighting, eventually righting the ship by winning a league title they’d almost gagged away and gritting out a Copa del Rey final in which they played most of the match a man down. This season, Luis Enrique found it hard to come up with solutions to the team’s stilted play, and it probably cost him his job. Still, rather than letting Real Madrid sprint out to a big lead in La Liga, and capitulating in the Champions League after the 4-0 massacre in Paris, Barcelona doubled down on the effort and are right there still in it.
It’s not only that Barcelona knew it was possible for them to find themselves in such a deep hole and somehow manage to come out on top, it’s that they expected it. All the reports before the game said the players were perfectly sure of themselves. Neymar fucking called his shot Babe Ruth-style and then went out and made it happen! In this game, Barcelona demonstrated once again that they know it’s never too late for them, that nothing is impossible, that as long as there is a chance, they can and will make it happen. And after today’s match—yet another seemingly desperate situation they went ahead and clawed their way out of, the same as they have multiple times over the past couple years—who could argue against them?