Relentless Paris show their worth against Barcelona
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Match reporter Chris Burke says Paris Saint-Germain's stunning 4-0 win against Barcelona will have proved to the club's players what they can achieve in the UEFA Champions League.
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Asked recently how to beat Barcelona, Thiago Silva delivered a less-than-stirring verdict: "We'll have to stay focused, deprive them of the ball – and pray." As it happened, Paris Saint-Germain needed neither divine intervention nor their captain to swat the Catalan giants aside at the Parc des Princes.
Monday's news that Silva would miss the game through injury appeared to be another hammer blow to Paris's chances, especially as stand-in centre-back Presnel Kimpembe stepped into the line-up as a UEFA Champions League virgin.
This, remember, was a side that had failed to properly replace Zlatan Ibrahimović in the summer and has struggled on the domestic stage for the first time in years. Indeed, just five days after being drawn against Barça, Unai Emery's men slumped to a 2-1 loss away to Guingamp.
How daunting this round of 16 tie appeared then. Many were already speculating that Emery's days in the French capital were numbered, but since that defeat his team have won 11 of 12 games. Tuesday's 4-0 first-leg victory against Barcelona was his, and their, masterpiece.
Nobody, not even the players, saw this coming. Thomas Meunier admitted to being "stunned" in the aftermath, but Emery and his staff had clearly being laying the groundwork. The Spaniard is renowned for poring over hours of video, and he has been watching Barcelona closely since the draw along with analysts Víctor Mañas and Adrien Tarascon.
It showed in Paris's constant pressing and their focus on cutting Barcelona's supply routes. It showed too in Emery's courageous choice to go with forward-thinking full-backs Meunier and Layvin Kurzawa.
The wide duo added numbers in midfield, allowing either Blaise Matuidi or Marco Verratti to make runs in between Barcelona's lines. Not only did Paris keep Barça at arm's length, lessening the impact of Silva's absence – though Kimpembe was excellent – they also spread their attacking threat across the pitch.
"Emery knows Barcelona perfectly," said Verratti afterwards. "Everything that happened had been prepared." It helps too, of course, to have players of Verratti's calibre, and the Italy midfielder's return from a calf injury was perfectly timed. Likewise, Adrien Rabiot stepped into the suspended Thiago Motta's shoes with real authority.
The club's January swoop for Julian Draxler is proving ever more inspired as well. The German international was another stand-out performer and has now scored five goals in nine appearances for Paris, while also giving Ángel Di María a much-needed nudge.
Yes, that Ángel Di María. A long way from his best in the first half of the season, the Argentinian was the player who initially made way for Draxler, but how he has responded to the challenge. Tuesday's masterful double took him to five goals in his last five outings.
With all the team's parts working in perfect unison, for once it was not left to Edinson Cavani to provide the firepower – though he duly provided the pièce de resistance. The Uruguayan's 34th effort for the club this term ensured that he, like Di María, enjoyed a birthday to savour.
Their collective display was thrilling to watch, but it will have been even more inspiring to the personnel on the pitch. They have proved to themselves what they can achieve and, for the first time in a long time, the club's grandiose motto 'Dream bigger' does not feel misplaced. It is Barcelona who now have to pray ahead of the second leg.