Barcelona’s star forward trio grabbed a goal apiece to give Barcelona top spot in Champions League Group F thanks to a 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou. Former Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic had given PSG an early lead in match the French champions only needed to draw in order to progress to the last 16 as group winners and secure, in theory, a kinder draw. But it was the current Barcelona forwards who were to prove decisive. Luis Enrique’s side quickly hit back through Lionel Messi, before Neymar curled a sumptuous strike into the corner of the net four minutes before the half-time interval. A second goal for the club for the third of the trio, Luis Suarez, then made the result safe with 13 minutes remaining.
PSG had won the first meeting between these sides in Paris, 3-2, and this was a similarly open affair between two teams with pretensions to lift the Champions League title in Berlin next May. Indeed, PSG will certainly feel there should have been more goals. Early in the second half the visitors looked certain to equalize, but two incredible goal-saving interventions by Marc Bartra rescued Barcelona and proved to be decisive.
Enrique raised eyebrows before kickoff with his decision not just to leave both Xavi and Ivan Rakitic on the bench but to opt for an unfamiliar and initially, at least, hard to decipher formation. There were three center-backs, while Pedro and Neymar began out on the flanks, and Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets lined up together in midfield. In the opening stages Enrique’s constant presence on the touchline shouting instructions spoke volumes for some of the teething problems his side were having with the flexible system.
Particularly vulnerable was the backline and with 15 minutes gone, PSG took advantage to go in front. It was all too easy for Laurent Blanc’s men as Blaise Matuidi laid the ball back to a completely unmarked Ibrahimovic and the Swede, who spent a solitary season at the Camp Nou before an acrimonious exit, responded to the jeers from the home crowd by drilling a low shot past the wrong-footed Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
PSG were quite content to sit back and concede possession and were posed little threat by a Barcelona side still struggling to get going. It was easy then to understand the frustration Blanc showed as PSG shipped an equalizer just four minutes after going in front. Mascherano’s admittedly fine ball over the top caught out a PSG defense that had yet to recover its position when Suarez shot-cum-cross allowed Messi to stretch and turn the ball into the roof of the net on his right foot. The goal was Messi’s 10th in his last five matches, illustrating how he has carried the load for Barcelona of late. But one of his star side-kicks was soon to outshine the four-time world player of the year.
Before that, though, PSG had chances to further punish Barcelona’s errant defense. First Lucas Moura volleyed wide at the near post after Matuidi had gotten free down the left, and then a simple ball over the top led to Ibrahimovic finding Cavani, but the Uruguayan’s volley was held by Ter Stegen.
With 10 minutes left in the half, Barcelona started to play with more intensity with and without the ball. Their crisper passing was in evidence to give Suarez an opening for a fierce shot that Sirigu did well to repel. And it was then Barcelona’s pressing that paved the way for a magnificent second goal. Captain for the night Andres Iniesta won the ball back in midfield, allowing Neymar to be set on his way. After driving forward into space, he neither had the advantage of a glance at goal or much of a back lift yet still curled a majestic effort over the dive of Sirigu and into the corner of the net.
PSG should still have hit back. Six minutes into the second half Lucas beat the uncomfortable Jeremy Mathieu down the left and had a shot blocked by Ter Stegen, before a frantic goal-mouth scramble saw Bartra heroically block from Cavani and then Matuidi. That was to be the last chance of note for the visitors. Barcelona gained solidity and greater composure on the ball when Rakitic and Xavi were introduced in quick succession and the team reverted to a back four. And Xavi was involved in the result-clinching goal when feeding Neymar for a shot that Suarez followed up to ease some of the pressure on his shoulders after a slow start at the Camp Nou.