Barcelona – Paris Saint-Germain: Catalan Catastrophe Cuts Chord On The Campaign (1-4)

Taking too many risks has left the Catalans in a crisis, and Barcelona were banking on a bailout in Europe to paint a prettier picture of this year. Fate would not permit that saving grace. Old allies were instrumental in the damaging demise of the club to taint the season once and for all.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

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Barcelona could be back in the last four of the Champions League for the first time in five years. That would have been a minor miracle in the eyes of most punters when Xavi announced in January that he would end his stint as manager at the end of May. However, since the statement, his men have not lost in 13 following fixtures. Even though their faltering defense of the LaLiga title has not looked more convincing, the Catalan coach might still get a graceful farewell courtesy of a European excursion.

PSG’s perennial problem is rearing its ugly head. A third Ligue 1 trophy in a row, and a tenth in the last 12 years, cannot contain the Parisian plea for their maiden continental crown. Luis Enrique, one of the predecessors of Xavi, accepted the call to cultivate the right culture in the camp. Lionel Messi and Neymar have left Kylian Mbappé in the capital city, but the sentiment remains this outfit is still not much more than the sum of its parts. Could the players fade faults enough to turn around the tie?

Barcelona enjoyed eleven days of rest before the reverse fixture, but PSG brought fresher legs into this duel, free from action after the outing at the Parc des Princes. Enrique switched three members of his starting eleven. Achraf Hakimi, who had served a suspension, returned on the right of the back four. So, Marquinhos moved back into the heart of the defense. Kang-in Lee made way for Warren Zaïre-Emery in the middle of the park, and Bradley Barcola came in for Marco Asensio in the attack.

Xavi rotated nine players away at Cádiz. His selection here was the same as last week except for one name: Pedri replaced Sergi Roberto. Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gündogan joined him in the midfield. Andreas Christensen missed out on the squad due to an excess collection of yellow cards, allowing Pau Cubarsí to partner with Ronald Araújo at the back. Lamine Yamal remained on the right wing. It meant three players 18 or under started a game in this competition’s knockout stage for the first time.

PSG pitch their stall

Enrique’s men set about stationing their base in enemy territory with no delay. Ousmane Dembélé drew attention in his duel with João Cancelo, working the outside as Hakimi pushed through the right halfspace. The intent to instigate dynamic attacks through speed and dribbles from the outside was also present on the left flank. Here, Fábian Ruiz caused damage to the defense with his positioning, while Barcola, and from time to time Mbappé, had turns to take their opponents to task down the line.

10th minute: offensive sequence from PSG. Mbappé had been wide right and taken a throw-in. De Jong had been covering Zaïre-Emery but has to go with Hakimi as he dribbles inside off the flank. Hakimi continues to maraud inside, de Jong follows him into the last line, Dembélé lays off the ball back to Mbappé, gaining separation between the lines from Cubarsí, and Raphinha locks onto Zaïre-Emery. Mbappé could then switch the ball to Barcola and Fábian is in support with an underlap.

Barcelona’s standard source of stimulation provided the impulse. They worked the ball from the right back to the base of their structure, where Araújo shifted down gears. He then clipped a switch of play out diagonally to the right wing, where Yamal was one on one with Mendes. The fullback trailed in his wake as Yamal slalomed down the outside and poked the ball across the face of goal. Raphinha could not connect cleanly, but the ball bounced off his standing leg past Gianluigi Donnarumma.

It was the first time Xavi’s men had entered the opposition box, let alone created an opportunity to test the goalkeeper. Their guests had committed to a man-oriented press. Dembélé dropped off with Cancelo on the right, and Mbappé lurked nearer to Cubarsí, so Barcola had to jump from Koundé to put pressure on Araújo. However, Vitinha, Zaïre-Emery, and Fábian stuck tight to their opposite men in the middle of the park. Araújo had to resort to longer passes that did not always meet their target.

18th minute: pressing sequence from PSG. Araújo carries the ball forward from the back. All three of Barcelona’s midfielders are subject to tight man-oriented coverage. The central defender fires a line breaking pass toward Lewandowski that skips off the ground, and he is unable to connect to Yamal.

Almost a third of the way through the match, and with only a third of the tie to go, this problem in construction exploded. It all threatened to crumble after a chasm opened in the defense. Pedri and de Jong were not available for Araújo, whose pass through the lines went astray. Mendes reached the loose ball ahead of Yamal and released Barcola in behind. Araújo clipped the heels of the winger just outside the box: there was no penalty, but the defender would receive a red card for his troubles.

Discipline degrades the defensive

Xavi reorganized the side. He chose to take off Yamal, putting on Iñigo Martínez in his place. The central defender joined Cubarsí in the middle of a back four and Pedri moved out to the right of the midfield in a 4-4-1 formation. It was only five minutes until the Parisians exploited the extra man. Barcola broke the lines with a flat cross to the far post, where Dembélé drove an effort into the net. Immediately after the goal, Pedri and Raphinha swapped flanks as their team survived till the break.

Fábian flashed the ball wide of the target in the 52nd minute, but a specific set-piece routine was the route of another fatality. Seconds later, Dembélé drove a delivery into the foot of Pedri, earning a corner. The winger pulled out to the right flank to use an overload with Fábian and Hakimi. When their opponents responded to the risk, the ball had worked its way around toward Vitinha, who stood about twenty five yards away from the target. He had the space and time to line up a shot, picking out the corner of the net. Suddenly, the two legged affair was even, and Barcelona stared at the exit.

54th minute: corner routine from PSG. Four of the five PSG attackers are at the far post, creating a dilemma for Barcelona in case of a short corner. De Jong does not push out before Dembélé had passed the ball to Hakimi. Fábian, who was closer to the winger, moves inside, pinning Cancelo. De Jong continues to shuffle wide as Dembélé is the free man on the outside, so Gündogan approaches Hakimi and Vitinha can receive. Lewandowski is slow and half hearted to engage before the strike.

Xavi saw red. His anger at the award of a foul against de Jong catalyzed a rant in the technical area. The referee sent him to the stands: the hosts had no leader in the dugout to add to their difficulties. The game management of individuals was insufficient to hold out for much longer. Dembélé took a bobbly touch inside the danger zone that lured Cancelo into contact. The fullback needlessly conceded a penalty on the stroke of the hour mark. Mbappé made the moment count, rifling beyond ter Stegen.

Helpless Hail Mary

More offensive minds tried to turn the tide for the hosts. Ferran Torres took the place of Pedri on the left of midfield. Fermín López came on for de Jong and Cancelo made way for his compatriot João Félix. In this aggressive configuration, Raphinha replaced Cancelo as the left back. The visitors had eased off on offensive productivity, but their opponents could not continuously lay siege to the goal.

Mbappé put the Catalans out of their misery. A short corner routine released Gündogan near the apex of the box, but the French forward telegraphed his cutback to López. Hakimi hustled with the ball over the halfway line, squaring the ball back to Mbappé. His teammate hit the leg of ter Stegen, who pulled out a second volley to stop a volley from Asensio. However, the goalkeeper was powerless to bail out Koundé’s frantic slide across the floor. Mbappé tucked the ball home, bagging his brace.


Xavi was furious with the dismissal of Araújo, viewing it as a turning point in the contest. However, he can only cite that point to a certain extent. Cautioning of two more members of the camp, including himself, indicated how the heat of the moment might have been too much. But even before that point, it is questionable that Barcelona could boast of the control that many imagined the manager to install as his vision at the club. He must try to reinvigorate the roster to spoil Real’s procession in El Clásico.

PSG have paved their way to the semi-final of the Champions League for the first time in three years. It is a major milestone for Enrique, who ought to feel a little more at ease in the dugout. The mentality of the outfit did not fall apart at the sight of a higher mountain to scale while the rhythm of their work in possession earned the acclaim of the manager. And having already picked up four points from two group stage fixtures with Borussia Dortmund, he will back his boys to go one step further to glory.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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