A last gasp strike from Blaise Matuidi denied Barça victory over Paris Saint-Germain in a bruising encounter at the Parc des Princes tonight. PSG gave Barça plenty of headaches and had the better chances in the opening half hour though Leo Messi broke the deadlock near the end of the first half to put Barça in front. Shortly after, Messi pulled a hamstring and he didn’t appear for a second half that was generally controlled more by Barça. With just over ten minutes remaining Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a disputed equalizer from an offside position and the game looked set to finish one a-piece. Xavi’s penalty in the last minute of normal time seemed to have given Barça the win, but then near the end of the fourth minute of injury time Matuidi fired home with the help of a deflection to leave the tie all square at 2-2 with the second leg at Camp Nou next Wednesday. The news on the extent of Messi’s injury will have to wait until tests tomorrow though it is believed he could be out for three weeks while Javier Mascherano will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a ligament injury.
Tito Vilanova returned to the bench for the first time in over two months while both Jordi Alba and Xavi Hernandez were considered fit enough to start. The main doubt before the game was who would accompany Leo Messi up front and in the end Vilanova opted for Alexis and David Villa, though neither player would show their best version, as Barça lined up with Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Villa. PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti had a surprise in his team selection with 37-year-old David Beckham starting in a double midfield pivot alongside Blaise Matuidi, with the French side starting with Sirigu, Jallet, Alex, Thiago Silva, Maxwell, Lucas Moura, Beckham, Matuidi, Pastore, Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic.
PSG looked far the more dangerous team early on. After just five minutes Pastore chested the ball down for Lavezzi who was allowed too much space by Piqué, as Lavezzi came face-to-face with Valdés, Busquets stretched to get his foot to the ball and was fortunate not to score an own-goal as the ball bounced out off the post. Barça were failing to do much with the possession with the only early attempt on goal coming from a hopeful 25-yarder from Xavi that went wide.
Ibrahimovic was getting the better of his early battles with the Barça defence. In the 14th minute the big Swede kept possession on the left before laying the ball back to Pastore whose low shot wasn’t held by Valdés who had to be quick to spring up and pounce on the loose ball before Alex could get to the rebound. Not long after Ibrahimovic turned Busquets and ran straight at Piqué who was drawn into the foul and the game’s first yellow card. From the free kick Zlatan fired low and hard and Valdés had to be alert to make a good diving save.
Thiago Silva was looking very strong in PSG’s defence, robbing Messi the first time he entered the penalty area, though Barça’s first real chance came when the Brazilian defender’s headed clearance went straight to Iniesta who hit a curler that went just wide. However, there continued to be more danger near Valdés’s goal, with the speedy Lucas Moura causing plenty of problems. Twice the PSG young Brazilian broke and then found Ibrahimovic in dangerous positions, the first time Ibrahimovic pulled his shot wide of the far post and the second time Alves got back well to intercept the danger.
Barça’s attack was looking less dynamic. Villa played through the middle but had little service besides one pass from Iniesta that was out of his reach, while Alexis stuck to the left side and besides one shot that hit Alex he created little danger. This changed in the 37th minute when Barça put together their most fluent attack. Messi found Iniesta who played the ball on to Alexis on the left, and then as Alba made the decoy run outside, Alexis cut inside and his deflected shot won a corner. Xavi took it from the left and PSG won the first two headers to clear the ball from the area. However, the ball only came as far as Alba who headed the ball square to Alves who, spotting a gap in the left of PSG’s area, sent a brilliant pass with the outside of his right foot for Messi to run onto and the four-time Ballon d’Or winner finished with a cross-shot inside the far post.
It was more than Barça deserved and Messi might have grabbed a second four minutes later. However, this time his shot whistled just over the bar and Messi winced in pain as he felt his hamstring go. The remaining minutes of the first half had the bizarre spectacle of Messi standing over by the touchline talking to Vilanova as his team-mates kept possession to see out time till half time. During the break it was decided that Messi could not continue and Cesc Fabregas came on in his place.
The second half was a more controlled affair. Piqué and Mascherano both improved and began to win their battles and it seemed that Valdés might gain another clean sheet in Paris after his excellent performance for Spain against France last week. However, Barça’s forwards continued to create little headway and it had to be the tireless Alves who began to find cracks in the PSG defence.
In the 63rd minute the Brazilian full back got forward to send a cross to Alexis in space at the far post but instead of hitting the ball first time Alexis chose to control which gave Alex the chance to knock the ball away. Two minutes later Fabregas crossed to give Alexis another chance, this time he chose to hit it first time but his contact wasn’t great and Sirigu made a comfortable save.
At least the chances were coming at the right end and next Alves tried his luck with a dipping free kick that went narrowly wide. Xavi also came close when his free kick clipped Alex’s head and looped just over the bar while PSG’s only shot on goal came from Maxwell though Valdés saved easily by the post.
The game was beginning to look comfortable but Barça’s luck began to change in the 75th minute with a sequence of events that led to PSG’s equalizer. It all began when PSG continued an attack with Alves down on the ground injured after receiving Veratti’s studs. The attack continued to Menez on the left and Mascherano was drawn into a foul which earned a suspension incurring yellow card. From the free kick Busquets headed the ball out for a corner and when the cross came in towards Thiago Silva at the near post both Alba and Mascherano ended in an injured heap inside the penalty area. PSG continued playing and four players were left onside by the two injured players, the ball came to Ibrahimovic and Valdés made an enormous save to put the ball out for a corner. Both Alba and Mascherano needed treatment and German referee Wolfgang Stark refused to allow the players to return when PSG took the corner, and Barça, playing with two players off, were only capable of giving away another free kick. Alba and the limping Mascherano were allowed back on, but from the free kick Thiago Silva won the header which crashed against the post falling nicely to Ibrahimovic who was a clear yard offside when Silva headed the ball, but the linesman’s flag inexplicably stayed down and Ibra had an easy job to knock home the equalizer.
The goal put life back into the home side and the final minutes returned more to the pattern of the first half. Tello and Bartra came on for Villa and the injured Mascherano and with five minutes remaining I don’t mind admitting I was happy to take the 1-1 draw. Alves had to be quick at the back to mop up after Ibrahimovic’s flicked header but the French side were breathing fire again.
Then as the clock ticked towards the 89 minute mark Iniesta sent a pass forward, Fabregas flicked the ball into the area and Alexis, chasing what looked like a lost cause, made contact with Sirigu as he charged out of his goal and Stark pointed to the penalty spot. I have to say that in real time it looked as though Alexis had looked for the contact but Sirigu was probably foolish to get caught out like that. With Messi absent Xavi took the responsibility and coolly sent Sirigu the wrong way with the penalty.
There was one final act. Four minutes of injury time were indicated. Well into the 94th minute Jallet lobbed in a cross from the right, Ibrahimovic easily beat Alves to the header, nodding the ball down to Matuidi whose shot clipped Bartrá leg, throwing Valdés off balance, and despite getting his fingers to the ball the Barça keeper couldn’t prevent the ball from crossing the line.
While the late equalizer is very frustrating the result can still be seen as a very good one to take to next Wednesday’s second leg. What is more worrying is that the performance was in line with our recent away games with the team failing to find the intensity that they showed in the 4-0 home win over Milan and on so many other occasions in the last five years. There may have been some bad luck in the two goals conceded but Valdés and the post saved Barça in the first half and we have now conceded sixteen goals in the last nine away games. We now have to make do without Mascherano for a month or more which leaves us very short at the back while Messi will undoubtedly be missed in attack. Despite the negatives we are on the verge of a record-breaking sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final while leading La Liga by 13 points. Why is it then that I get the feeling that all is not well?
Paris SG: Sirigu; Jallet, Alex, Thiago Silva, Maxwell; Lucas Moura, Beckham (Verratti m70), Matuidi, Pastore (Gameiro m75); Lavezzi (Menez m67), Ibrahimovic
Barça: Valdés 7.5; Alves 8, Piqué 6, Mascherano 6.5 (Bartrá m84, –), Alba 6; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6, Iniesta 6; Villa 5.5 (Tello m80, –), Messi 7 (Fabregas m45, 5.5), Alexis 6.
Goals: m38 Messi 0-1, m79 Ibrahimovic 1-1, m90 Xavi (pen) 1-2, m94 Matuidi 2-2.
Yellow cards: m18 Piqué, m61 Alba, m65 Matuidi (misses 2nd leg), m68 Beckham, m75 Mascherano (misses 2nd leg), m85 Alves, m87 Ibrahimovic, m89 Sirigu.