Barcelona thrashed Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 Wednesday night in Paris behind an early goal from Neymar and a fabulous brace from Luis Suarez.
Jeremy Mathieu redirected the ball into his own net to give PSG a late consolation, but the result probably kills next week’s second leg. What will raise alarms is that it was not even a commanding performance from the La Liga leaders — but it was more than enough on a night that saw PSG’s best chances badly wasted, with Edinson Cavani looking particularly hapless.
To be sure, the French title-hopefuls were missing several key players: totemic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was suspended for the game, as were Marco Verratti and Serge Aurier. David Luiz was included despite his injury woes, but Thiago Motta could not recover in time.
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So it was hardly surprising when Barcelona stormed out of the gates, with PSG looking to suppress and wait out the storm. It didn’t work. The goal was a marvel of Barcelona’s patented attacking trident, a break sprung right down the gut by Andres Iniesta after Sergio Busquets stole the ball, that Lionel Messi collected in stride, then dumped off left. Neymar torched Gregory van der Wiel and then slid the ball under Salvatore Sirigu for the soccer equivalent of a layup.
Suarez effectively ended the contest with twenty to play when he scored a superb solo goal, catching David Luiz out, and then skipping through both Maxwell and Marquinhos to net. If Neymar’s goal was the work of a guard, this was the play of a power forward, a muscular drive to the goal that was equal parts precision and power.
The third goal was just a bad error on David Luiz’s part. With Suarez steaming down the center at him, he inexplicably tried to strip the ball; instead he was nutmegged and Suarez gleefully picked out the top corner.
”When we play like that, it’s tough to beat us,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. ”3-0 would have been perfect.”
PSG did not look wholly outclassed on the night, but in truth, the first goal, the culmination of a strong twenty minute spell, did take a lot of the sting out of the game. Messi had been trying to slip Jordi Alba around the back, forcing two big tackles from Thiago Silva, and he also rattled the near post 15 minutes in off a lovely square ball from Luis Suarez.
PSG were further depleted after the goal when Thiago Silva had to limp off with an apparent thigh problem. David Luiz, only ten days removed from a hamstring injury of his own, was thrown on and quickly tested (and beaten, and beaten again) by Suarez in a matchup reminiscent of their lopsided Premier League days. Sirigu would also apparently injure his shoulder late in the first half.
PSG did have their chances: the problem was that Cavani made a hash of most of them. Javier Pastore was also culpable, missing the first chance of the game when he failed to connect with an incisive cross from Blaise Matuidi. But Cavani’s misses and slips were truly special.
First, he managed to waste a wide-open break, sprung by the lively Matuidi on the near flank, that Ezequiel Lavezzi put on a plate for him. Instead of collecting, he tried to dink the ball cutely around Javier Mascherano, and ended up with a face full of grass for his efforts.
He would then drift offside on a Lavezzi freekick (and even with acres of space could not get his header on frame) and followed that up with an airball that Marc-Andre ter Stegen was happy to collect.
As Laurent Blanc turned purple on the bench, Cavani continued to mistime runs, spoil opportunities, and otherwise give no reason to think he should be preferred over Ibrahimovic. In fact, Cavani would not seriously challenge ter Stegen until the 70th minute, and by that time, the game was over.
”We’ll want to show another side of ourselves in Barcelona with a team that will be quite different,” Blanc said. ”We didn’t do much that was good.”
Pastore, who was possibly PSG’s most thoughtful player on the night, continued to try and create; and he continued to look frustrated and depressed in the aftermath. While PSG had plenty of endeavor, they had no answer for Barcelona’s speed of thought. Time and time again, Pastore would collect the ball in space, only to find three yellow shirts around him with no outlet in store. And Cavani, woeful Cavani.
When PSG finally scored, it was a late fluke, a hopeful ball pounded in by van der Wiel that Mathieu bizarrely plumped into his own net when he didn’t even need to play it. Initially, the scorer credited van der Wiel, but there’s no mistaking the massive redirect the Barcelona sub put on the ball.
The Parisians are indeed on the way up. Years of profligate spending have made sure of that. But they are not a complete side nor a deep one yet, and they still look more than a step short of the elite. One man tonight who must have been watching this match and wondering "what if" would be Jose Mourinho … unless of course he was watching his old side Porto take Bayern to school.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.