By Charles Ryan
The UEFA Champions League round-of-sixteen kicked off last week with a selection of tantalizing ties. FC Barcelona squared off against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in what would be a major turning point in the futures of both clubs.
With Paris Saint-Germain clad in vintage navy and Barcelona in a dazzling blend of mint and turquoise, the home side got the ball rolling under the lights of its nation’s capital. PSG dominated the opening stages of the match. The Parisian defense did well to initiate a counterattack after an early Barcelona free kick, with Argentine winger Ángel Di María streaking down the flank, only to have his through-ball to teammate Edinson Cavani intercepted by Barça keeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. It was evident that PSG’s defensive structure sought to isolate Barcelona’s legendary attacking trident of Leo Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar. Both PSG wingers dropped deep into the midfield to frustrate any solo charges at the defense from the skillful forwards, as well as prevent link-up play and vertical passing, with holding midfielder Adrien Rabiot doing the brunt of the pressing. After a foul from Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti midway through the first period, Di María curled an outstanding free kick into the upper corner of the net, breaking the deadlock (18’). Midfielder Marco Verratti continued to toy with the Barcelona press by inviting the midfielders to advance, and promptly killed it by breaking the lines with a vertical pass to one of the checking forwards. Neymar momentarily revived the Barcelona attack after blistering through the midfield, with André Gomes’ shot forcing a save from Kevin Trapp. PSG continued to keep Barcelona in their own half with quality spells of possession and constantly targeted winger Julian Draxler to exploit the struggling Sergi Roberto. After Rabiot and Verratti dispossessed a dilly-dallying Messi, the Italian linked up with Draxler and surged through the free space in the midfield toward the defense. Verratti then slotted the ball to Draxler who fired it past his German compatriot, doubling the lead (40’).
Soon after the break, birthday boy Ángel Di María capped a counterattack with a brilliant effort from twenty yards out, extending the lead to three (55’). Verratti continued to dictate the play from deep, frustrating the Spanish press by using his 5’5” frame to draw fouls and by switching the field, but exited with a knock midway through the second half. Cavani scored his birthday goal, the fourth and final of the evening after defender Thomas Meunier waltzed through an empty midfield and laid the ball off to the Uruguayan, who crushed it in near-post (71’). The French side continued their offensive onslaught through the end of the match but were unable to find a fifth.
Manager Luis Enrique and his men return home on 3/8 in an attempt to claw back from a daunting four goal deficit, needing five and a clean sheet to advance to the quarter-finals. Thanks to a rigid defensive structure and world-class performances from Verratti and Di María, PSG boss Unai Emery will be confident in his team’s ability to further silence critics and eliminate the Catalán side from the tournament in the second leg.
Photograph Credits: ESPN FC