Barça reached a record sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final tonight after a nail-biting 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain. For 20 minutes of the second half PSG were ahead in the tie after Javier Pastore fired the visitors in front. Tito Vilanova needed to call for a half-fit Leo Messi to inspire Barça’s comeback which arrived thanks to Pedro Rodriguez’s strike in the 71st minute.
As expected Messi wasn’t fully recovered from his injury and started on the bench, Adriano was preferred over Marc Bartrá to partner Gerard Piqué in defence while up front Pedro started on the left with Cesc Fabregas roaming behind a central David Villa while the right side was left open for Dani Alves to attack.
The opening exchanges were quick and fast. Xavi sent a free kick curling inches wide. PSG responded with Lavezzi getting a shot from inside the area that went straight at Valdés, and soon after a poor ball from Busquets gave Lavezzi a run towards the area but he lost control allowing Piqué to get a toe in and Valdés cleared.
The need to avoid stupid mistakes in the knock-out stages is obvious, but in the 5th minute it was PSG’s normally reliable Thiago Silva who slipped while taking a defensive free-kick; then to deny Fabregas a clear run at goal the defender was forced to play the ball a second time which earned Barça an indirect free kick that was fired into the wall by Villa.
Barça continued to push forward. Iniesta and Pedro both had shots blocked, then Iniesta tried his luck from 45 yards but sent his shot just over. But the danger was always there from PSG with Lucas Moura forcing a low diving save from Valdés, and soon after Lavezzi fired over from 25 yards.
Alves failed to have much impact on the right side but in the 17th minute he got forward to send in a low cross that was met by Villa with a quick shot that deflected off Alex for a corner. Four minutes later Pedro got past Jallet and crossed from the left, PSG keeper Salvatore Sirigu dived to push the ball out but after hitting Thiago Silva it bounced back to Pedro who could only shoot into the side-netting from a tight angle.
At this point the game was fairly even but as the first half progressed PSG began to get the better of things. Lavezzi was working hard to follow Sergio Busquets and the Barça midfield was struggling to find its normal fluency. Then in the 24th minute Adriano’s defensive header only went as far as Ibrahimovic who sent a magnificent pass for Lavezzi’s diagonal run and Valdés had to demonstrate why many consider him the best in the world in one-against-one situations with a low save to his left.
PSG were encouraged. Next Ibrahimovic made a run to the left to receive Veratti’s pass before sending a cross to the far post where Moura rose above Alba to head for goal and Valdés had to tip the ball over. From the corner Valdés again had to spring to make a fine save from Alex’s header though referee Bjorn Kuippers had already blown for Moura’s offside.
Barça were failing to create much danger going forward with Villa being given no space by the presence of Alex and Thiago Silva. The PSG defence wasn’t worried again until the 37th minute when Xavi’s clever dummy allowed Pedro’s pass to run to Villa but the final shot went high. Barça’s shooting all night was a bit wayward and next it was Fabregas who missed the target after setting his sights from 25 yards. There were few attempts to play the ball through the middle to Villa, and then when Iniesta did play the pass, Fabregas was just too slow to react to Villa’s neat flick.
There was a sense of relief to go in 0-0 at half time but enough had been seen of PSG in the first 45 minutes to suggest the second half would be far from easy. Barça began the second period in much the same manner. The team pushed forward, Alba won a corner, Fabregas sent another long shot wide, but there was a sense of caution that looked unlikely to surprise the French defence. Then in the 50th minute Pedro played a poor ball towards the PSG area which was quickly cleared to Ibrahimovic near the centre spot. The lanky Swede showed class to knock the ball off to Pastore while spinning away into space to then play a wall pass back to Pastore who left Alves and Adriano in his wake before clipping the ball past Valdés.
The fear of elimination shot across Camp Nou. Barça have come back from a goal down plenty of times playing at home. However, the feeling was that PSG’s defence was not too troubled and Vilanova sent Messi out to warm up as a response. Until Messi came on, however, Barça continued to threaten little. The best chance came in the 57th minute when Fabregas played the ball back for Villa to shoot but the ball hit Alex before going wide and to make things worse Kuippers indicated a goal kick.
Ibrahimovic continued to cause the Barça defence problems, sending a fine pass into Pastore who skied his shot. From the goal-kick Valdés inexplicable passed the ball straight to an opponent and Busquets was forced into conceding a free-kick from which Valdés again had to save from Moura’s curler. Barça’s response was a cross from Alba that reached Alves but again the final shot was poor, going well over.
Having warmed up for nearly ten minutes Messi was finally brought on in place of Fabregas in the 62nd minute while Bartrá replaced Adriano who almost inevitably pulled up with another muscular injury. The impact of Messi was immediate, but not so much for his own contribution as for the effect it had on his team-mates. Iniesta began to have more effect, dribbling between two in the area only to be denied by Thiago Silva’s last ditch block.
Barça began to pile on the pressure. From a corner both Piqué and Iniesta had shots block. Then soon after, Iniesta went on another run into the area, Sirigu parried his shot and Messi couldn’t react in time to shoot though the ball fell for Fabregas whose shot was also blocked. PSG still looked dangerous on the break with Pastore being allowed to advance into shooting range though his shot was well off target, and soon after Valdés had to be quick to intercept Ibrahimovic’s head down.
Barça’s equalizer finally came in the 71st minute. Veratti sent a long crossfield clearance straight to Alves just inside the PSG half, Alves advanced and played the ball inside to Messi who accelerated between Veratti and Motta before sending a ball in for Villa who despite being closely marked managed to knock the ball back to Pedro who cracked the ball past Sirigu from the edge of the area.
The relief was enormous but there was still 20 minutes to play. Messi appeared to feel something from his injury and he probably only broke into a run three or four times in the remainder of the game. Barça played keep-ball, pretty successfully, as if Messi’s mere presence created order. However, PSG didn’t give up, throwing on Kevin Gameiro and David Beckham, Gameiro curling a shot well over soon after coming on. Vilanova’s respect for PSG was evident in Barça’s final substitution with Alex Song replacing Villa with six minutes to go.
Iniesta continued to be Barça’s most inspired outfield player, making one splendid run into the area, beating Jallet once before spinning to beat him again, though his shot, like the majority of the shots from both sides tonight, was off target. The tension lasted right to the end, with Piqué sending one clearance straight to late substitute Gregory Van der Wiel but Bartrá got across to intercept the danger. Deep into injury time, with memories of the first leg all too present, a high ball came in towards Ibrahimovic in the area, Camp Nou held its breath, but Zlatan failed to get a good header and Valdés caught the ball comfortably under the bar.
Despite Barça excellent record in qualifying for the sixth straight UCL semi-final, it is never easy at these stages and PSG proved to be a very strong opponent. The tie could have gone either way and if you take the two legs as a whole, Victor Valdés was probably our most important player. There were obviously problems for Barça tonight with the limited contribution from Messi and the makeshift defence. However, there is a clear need for an improvement before the semi-finals. Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich await us in Friday’s draw. The road to Wembley has one more obstacle. We will have to be at our best.
Barça: Valdés 7.5; Alves 6, Piqué 6, Adriano 6 (Bartrá m62, 6.5), Alba 7; Busquets 5.5, Xavi 6, Iniesta 7.5; Villa 7 (Song m84, 6.5), Fabregas 5.5 (Messi m62, 7), Pedro 7.
Paris SG: Sirigu; Jallet (Van der Wiel m87), Thiago Silva, Alex, Maxwell; Thiago Motta, Verratti (Beckham m83); Lucas Moura, Lavezzi (Gameiro m81), Pastore; Ibrahimovic.
Goals: m50 Pastore 0-1, m71 Pedro 1-1.
Yellow cards: m42 Adriano, m80 Lavezzi, m86 Thiago Siva, m90 Beckham