Barcelona players and fans celebrate after Sergi Roberto scored the winner against paris St-Germain. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters
Suddenly, there were people running across the pitch and the kind of noise that even this arena, the biggest stadium in Europe, had never heard before. Something magical had just happened, something utterly implausible. Barcelona had done it, somehow. They are where they have been every year for the last 10 years, into the quarter-final of the Champions League, but they got there in a way they never have; a way that no one ever has. Three goals in an hour, three more in five minutes, sent them through. They had believed, then they had not, then they had again. Amazingly, it turned out that they had reason to.
An extraordinary, mind-bending match was into its 95th-minute and Barcelona’s goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, was in the Paris Saint-Germain penalty area when Neymar clipped a superb ball into the box that Sergi Roberto reached, stretching out a toe to volley in the goal that took Barcelona through. From the bench, they came, sprinting across the pitch. Some held their heads in their hands. This can’t seriously have happened. Buy, yes, yes, it had.
4-0 down from the first leg, Barcelona brought it back to 4-3 on aggregate but their hope had gone when Edison Cavani score the away goal that ended it. They needed three more and that wasn’t going to happen. They still needed three when the game went into the last five minutes. They got them. Neymar, heroic throughout here, curled in a free-kick, then scored a penalty. And then with time gone, slipping away, delivered the pass that sent this place into raptures and his team into the quarter-final.
After the first leg, Neymar had said that Barcelona had only a 1 per cent chance of going through but it was something to grab hold of, and over the last seven days some belief had emerged from the gloom. By kick-off, it didn’t seem quite so absurd to think that they might actually do this. Luis Enrique insisted on Tuesday that for a fortnight now he has been convinced that there would be a moment in the tie when the comeback would be possible.
“Everything can happen in 95 minutes,” the Barcelona coach said, and after just two and half that had included a goal. A mess, sure, but a lifeline.
When the ball came into the area from the right, Thiago Silva’s header spun upwards and was allowed to come down again, no one moving decisively to clear. As it bounced and defenders waited, Luis Suárez didn’t, leaping to head over Kevin Trapp from close range. The Camp Nou erupted. Almost 90 minutes to go, just three more to get.
Barcelona, playing with five across the midfield, Rafinha and Neymar as wing-backs, kept coming. The risk was clear but they were first to every ball, winning possession swiftly, dashing forward and pushing at a team who looked fearful already – although there was a warning when, after 10 minutes, PSG broke on the left and appealed for a penalty after Javier Mascherano, sliding in, made contact with his arm.
Soon entrenched, Unai Emery’s team took their time when they could – which basically meant when they got goal-kicks, while they were late out for the second half too – and brought Barcelona’s players down when they had to, Neymar a particular target. There was not much respite, yet nor, in truth, was there clarity from the Catalans. “We have to be ambitious but not go mad or play with desperation,” Suárez had said, but acceleration was inevitable, some precipitation too. There was momentum but perhaps less of Lionel Messi than might have been expected.
They did not hold back. Rafinha on the right and Neymar on the left saw a lot of the ball and forward Barcelona came, only to find PSG there in numbers.
The second goal came after 40 minutes, when Andrés Iniesta chased down Suárez’s ball into the left side of the area. Marquinhos was passive, Iniesta flicked it up with his heel and Layvin Kurzawa deflected into his own goal. “Yes, we can!” chanted the Camp Nou.
Despite PSG’s extended half-time break, they didn’t have to wait long. Neymar was brought down by Thomas Meunier, falling head first at his feet. Messi thumped in the penalty. It wasn’t done, but that moment Luis Enrique had talked about was here: it was really possible now. It could also be taken away swiftly, though, and two minutes later came the moment that could have ended it all: Edinson Cavani slid in and struck the post. Eight minutes after that came the moment that did end it all, and it was the same man who had fired that warning.
Ivan Rakitic had brought down Julian Draxler as he looked set to race through and from the free-kick, a long, clipped ball was headed back. Cavani took it in the air and hit it into the net.
Barcelona kept going. Messi shot wide, Arda Turan had one cleared off the line and then headed on to the roof of the net but that moment had gone. Or had it? When Neymar scored with a free-kick in the 87th minutes, it seemed almost cruel, taunting. Instead, it was an awakening. Suárez went down two minutes later. Still, it didn’t seem likely. There were nerves, but Neymar scored from the spot and the chant went up with the board. Five minutes left and “Yes, we can!”. Incredibly, amazingly, historically, astonishingly, they could too.
Source: Irish Times