It’s been tried in a number of various formats. It’s the holy grail of European football domination. How to beat Barcelona? Last season, Chelsea did it with a weird style of tactical astuteness and British bloody-minded stubborn defence. Jose Mourinho appears to be able to do it at will and with almost boring regularity - much to the chagrin of the blaugrana cules, for whom he remains the ultimate bete noire. For most of the mere mortals however, it remains that tantalising dream, the bridge too far. So when PSG turned up at the Camp Nou, with all realistic hope pinned on an away win, the inevitable seemed….well, inevitable. Carlo Ancelotti had a plan however.
With Messi apparently hamstrung on the bench, the Barca front line suddenly appeared to lack the pace to threaten the spaces in behind the PSG defence, marshalled by the inestimable Thiago Silva. The French team came with an idea to press early, and press high. Take away the space where Xavi and Inniesta weave their intricate geometry, and the play can be curtailed before it reaches the danger area. It was as if Ancelloti had said “we’re good enough to score, and if we work hard enough we can frustrate you enough to win.” For an hour or so, the Italian manager of the French champions was right on the money. Barca had a frontline of the poacher, but relatively pedestrian Villa, the nimble Pedro and the hat-trick hero from the weekend, Fabregas – spookily the first Spanish player to score a hat trick for Barca in La Liga for a dozen years. Players with estimable qualities, but not the fear factor of Messi.
PSG had deployed their forces to choke of the supply to a front line that only sporadically looked threatening, whilst at the other end, the PSG attack carried a significant and constant threat. Half-time brought a tense stalemate, with both teams probably relatively happy. Barca, were still in the lead. PSG, happy with their game plan performing to schedule, meaning that on balance they probably shaded the first period. Something had to give.
Then Pastore burst through and netted for PSG. Suddenly all bets were off, Barca looked in trouble. Harassed in midfield and losing possession with unaccustomed, but alarming regularity. Even Xavi was misplacing passes. The pressing game was squeezing the life out of the Barca team. Then, apparently by his own volition, Messi peeled off his tracksuit top and appeared fit for for the fray. Now, there are things that footballing talent can overcome, but physical injury simply isn’t one of them. Spragging a hammy in any meaningful way is normally a three week issue, but apparently this guy was going to defy convention. Clearly not fully fit, else why wouldn’t he be starting, cometh the hour, cometh the man was the call.
You can imagine the wailing around Parisian suburbs as the diminutive Argentinian trotted onto the pitch. Clearly unable to sprint however, without causing further damage, the things he could do were severely curtailed. What was not impaired however was his lightening brain and even faster feet. With nimble dexterity he created the one opening that Barca needed. Pedro duly dispatched and the game was saved.
Everyone has their own idea of a classic game – even when it doesn’t include your team. For me, this was one of those games. PSG had a calculated – correctly – how to contain the Barca playbook and keep the game away from their goal. It was tactically spot on. Tactics are fine, but sheer talent can transform a game in a moment and in Messi, Barca had the guy to perform the required magic. It’s hard on PSG, and rarely have Barcelona been tested as severely, but if your taste is for football delicately balanced on a knife-edge of the unknown, only to have it decided by a piece of magic, this game was a feast.