Barça’s unbeaten start to the season came to an end tonight with a Champions League defeat at Paris Saint Germain. In a thrilling match, David Luiz fired PSG in front in the tenth minute but Leo Messi equalised soon after. The home team were back in the lead halfway through the first half when Marco Varretti headed in from a corner and Blaise Matuidi put the Parisiens further in front early in the second half. Neymar pulled a goal back for Barça and Munir El-Haddadi came close to saving a point when his 85th minute shot hit the outside of the post but PSG held on for a deserved 3-2 victory.
Despite stating he didn’t plan to play different goalkeepers in different competitions, Luis Enrique gave Marc-André ter Stegen his second Barça appearance after playing in the first Champions League game against Apoel. It wasn’t to be the happiest night for the German keeper and the three French goals provided a disappointing end to Barça’s run of seven games without conceding. Elsewhere the Barça coach stuck with his favourite ten outfield players which meant no place in the team again for Gerard Piqué. Whether or not Piqué would have started if Zlatan Ibrahimovic had played is a matter of speculation, but with the faster Edinson Cavani restored to a traditional centre-forward position, the Barça coach decided to start with his quickest centre-backs, Javier Mascherano and Jeremy Mathieu.
Barça began speculatively and PSG’s soon found that with an intelligent on-off pressing game they could ruffle Barça’s feathers. Busquets was particularly slow to get started, getting robbed by Motta who then fired over from 25 yards. Maxwell was surging forward from left-back and when Rakitic brought the ex-blaugrana down, Lucas Moura sent the free-kick into the box, Busquets headed out to the edge of the area and Matuidi fired a low shot that was blocked. The threat from PSG’s set-pieces came again in the ninth minute when Alves got in a mess bringing the ball out and got booked for a handball. Lucas curled in another inswinger and David Luiz was allowed to control the ball, holding off Mascherano and turning to fire low past the surprised Ter Stegen.
Barça were a goal behind without having come anywhere near Sirigu’s goal. But then almost straight from the restart a Barça move up the left ended with quick first-time passes from Neymar to Messi to Iniesta which dissected the defence, and when Iniesta’s wall-pass came back to Messi fifteen yards out, the Argentinian hit it first time low into the far corner. The two early goals set the pace and PSG soon came close to another after Busquets was again robbed and Cavani fired a yard over from just outside the box.
Barça were lacking composure while PSG continued to look the hungrier side. However, Messi’s goal had shown how quickly things can change and Barça began to penetrate a bit more. Pedro fired well wide from 25 yards then Messi’s scissor-kick forced a save from Sirigu but the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli had already blown for dangerous play from Mathieu. Then in the 25th minute Messi brilliantly lifted a pass over the PSG defence but Neymar was stretching with Sirigu bearing down on him and he could only volley the ball over.
Barça were now dominating possession but PSG always looked dangerous on the break. Cavani was proving a handful for Mascherano and Mathieu but the real problems came on the flanks where Pastore and Lucas consistently got the better of Alves and Alba. In the 26th minute Lucas robbed Alba and then Pastore won a corner off Mathieu. Motta swung the ball towards the far post which had been left completely uncovered, Ter Stegen came for the cross but only ran into the back-peddling Rakitic, and Verratti arrived to head comfortably home. Two goals conceded from three set-pieces and Barça were 2-1 down.
This time Barça didn’t come straight back. Iniesta shot high and wide and Mascherano got forward for a rare shot that was deflected wide. PSG began to grow to the occasion and the 48,000 in attendance at the Parc des Princes raised the noise. David Luiz was particularly impressive with a swashbuckling display while Cavani demonstrated the team’s commitment by getting back to impede Iniesta inside the PSG area. Barça were struggling to create chances and the first half ended with Messi’s free-kick going narrowly over.
PSG came out strongly after the break. In the 47th minute Pastore broke forward before finding Cavani who turned inside Mathieu but Mascherano made a vital block. Soon after, Alves was somewhat fortunate not to see a second yellow after bringing down the Uruguayan striker. Jordi Alba was having a torrid time, getting turned once by Lucas and then again, soon after by Pastore. Then in the 54th minute Alba was again beaten as Pastore slipped the ball on for Van der Wiel to whip in a low cross, neither Mathieu nor Ter Stegen could react and Matuidi beat Alves at the far post to make it 3-1.
Barça weren’t out of it yet though. A couple of minutes later Alves lobbed a high ball into the area, three defenders jumped with Messi but they all missed the ball which came to Neymar who had time to coolly pick his spot with a shot in off the far post. There was over half an hour remaining and there were reasons for hope but PSG immediately threatened again and Ter Stegen had to be alert to stop shots from Cavani and Pastore.
Munir replaced the disappointing Pedro and then Xavi was brought on for Rakitic. Iniesta fired over after Xavi’s free-kick was half cleared but Barça were struggling to find chances. The clock was ticking down and PSG were getting pinned back, but it wasn’t until the 82nd minute that Barça created a decent chance when Messi played in Munir to cross from the right and Alba arrived at the far post with a shot that was stopped near the line by an excellent saving block from Marquinhos.
Sandro replaced Alves as Barça switched to a defence of three, and the move nearly paid off when Munir found space to shoot from 25 yards but his skidding shot bounced wide off the outside of the post. The last few minutes were hectic with Cavani threatening three times to wrap things up for PSG. Neymar had one shot blocked at the other end, then in injury time the Brazilian set up a chance for Sandro but the youngster pulled his left-foot shot well wide.
This was the first big test for Luis Enrique but his players made too many mistakes to deserve anything more. The vulnerability at set-pieces may seem familiar to culés but it is disappointing after the generally solid defensive displays seen so far this season. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, we have now only won one of our last five away games in the Champions League and this was the third defeat after losing at Ajax and Atlético under Tata Martino.
Many fingers will be pointed at Ter Stegen though he could only really be faulted with the second goal. It is difficult for a keeper to come in when he’s not playing regularly and it was a very big game for the 22-year-old. I hope the press go easy on him as he has enormous potential to become a great keeper. More worrying was the form of regulars such as Alves, Alba, Busquets and Pedro, who were all well below their best.
This should take nothing away from PSG who generally defended solidly while causing all sorts of problems with Pastore, Lucas and Cavani on the break. The French team now lead Group F on four points with Barça second on three. Apoel and Ajax drew in Nicosia so the Dutch are third on two points while the Cypriots are fourth with just one.
Paris SG: Sirigu; Van der Wiel, Marquinhos, David Luiz, Maxwell; Verratti (Cabaye m71), Motta, Matuidi; Lucas Moura (Bahebeck m91), Cavani, Pastore (Chantome m86).
Barça: Ter Stegen 5.5; Alves 5 (Sandro m82, 5.5), Mascherano 5.5, Mathieu 6, Alba 5; Rakitic 5.5 (Xavi m69, 5.5), Busquets 5, Iniesta 6; Pedro 5 (Munir m62, 6.5), Messi 7.5, Neymar 6.5.
Goals: m10 David Luiz 1-0, m12 Messi 1-1, m26 Veratti 2-1. m54 Matuidi 3-1, m56 Neymar 3-2.
Yellow cards: m9 Alves, m27 Veratti, m44 Matuidi, m66 Van der Wiel.