FC Barcelona claimed first place in UEFA Champions League Group F at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain, the Catalan club’s exceptional firepower ensuring they will avoid the other section leaders in Monday’s draw.
The essential objective for each of these clubs was a result which guaranteed winning Group F; only a victory would do for Barcelona while Paris needed just a point. But anticipation was also high at the prospect of blue-riband football, and the night duly provided moments which will stand comparison with anything else the season provides.
Home coach Luis Enrique’s bold switch to a 3-4-3 did not have the desired effect. Barcelona had conceded space down the touchlines in their defeat at Paris, yet when Zlatan Ibrahimović set Lucas away down the right, the Brazilian had time to supply Blaise Matuidi in the box. A neat lay-off and the Swede thumped in the opening goal.
The Matuidi-Ibrahimović combination began to dominate, their power, technique and understanding often leaving Barcelona gasping for breath and wondering where so many gaps were coming from. Luckily for the hosts, they had a special moment of their own up their sleeves.
Javier Mascherano, in midfield again, displayed his vision and technique with a long ball over the shoulder of Luis Suárez’s marker. The striker’s cushioned volley across goal gave Lionel Messi the chance to slide his 75th UEFA Champions League goal.
The message that the profligate are punished in elite competition was underlined before the break. Lucas missed an opportunity laid on a plate for him by Ibrahimović and Matuidi before Marc-André ter Stegen saved from Edinson Cavani when the percentages favoured the striker.
Thus, as night follows day, Barcelona scored. Neymar burst away from the Paris defence and crafted an explosive, dipping swerving shot from distance which beat Salvatore Sirigu, bringing the stadium to ecstasy.
Unbowed, Paris regrouped at half-time and only Marc Bartra’s athletic heroics denied them an equaliser when Lucas caused chaos and Cavani’s goal-bound effort was blocked. Maxwell, too, missed his kick in the penalty box when scoring looked simpler.
Again there was a cost. An intricate move starting with Suárez and Messi led to Neymar’s shot only being parried by Sirigu and the Uruguayan tapped in the rebound to maintain Barcelona’s run of winning their group, stretching back to 2006/07.