Luis Suárez struck two second-half goals to all but secure Barcelona a place in the final four of the Champions League after a 3-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their quarterfinal at the Parc des Princes. PSG had beaten the Catalans 3-2 at home in this season’s group stage, but, missing a host of key players, this time around they produced a lackluster performance and had no answer to the Barcelona's brilliant attack.
Having already seen Lionel Messi hit the post, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner set up Neymar to open the scoring 18 minutes in. And, while the French champions improved as the contest wore on, it was Barcelona who always had a clear superiority in class up front.
Midway through the second half Suárez demonstrated once again the extraordinary ability of Barcelona’s attacking trident when beating three opposition players before squeezing his shot past Salvatore Sirigu. It was fast becoming a rout when the former Liverpool man ran through a hapless PSG defense to make it 3-0 not long after. The only positive for the Ligue 1 leaders came from Gregory van der Wiel’s shot lashed into his own net by Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu. But it was merely a consolation on this night and is unlikely to prove little more over the course of the tie.
And the margin of victory was no more than Barcelona deserved. It was a match which demonstrated the strides they have made under Luis Enrique since their last visit to the French capital and what were a difficult first few months of the campaign. Top of La Liga, albeit having dropped points against Sevilla at the weekend, they once again look a real threat to be crowned kings of Europe. After the scoreline on Wednesday it is now difficult to see them not at least improving on their quarterfinal exit a year ago.
PSG's hopes had already been dealt a major blow ahead of the match, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marco Verratti and Serge Aurier ruled out through suspension and Thiago Motta sidelined by injury. And things got worse still for Laurent Blanc shortly after his side went behind, when captain and defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva was forced off with an injury of his own.
His replacement David Luiz was a surprise inclusion even among the substitutes after his recent injury, and the man who PSG made the world’s most expensive defender last summer was exposed crudely by Suárez for both of his goals. Blanc can reassure himself with the knowledge that the likes of Ibrahimovic and Motta will be back for next week’s second leg, but his team have surely left themselves too much to do, needing to score at least three times at the Camp Nou to prevent a third straight quarterfinal exit.
It has been far from a wholly convincing season for PSG, but they had raised their level impressively to surprise Chelsea in the previous round and progress despite being down to 10 men. On contrast, they were extremely flat here and, despite the absentees and the fact they have now clawed their way to the top of Ligue 1, Blanc’s failure to get a better performance from his side on such a big occasion will surely raise serious questions about his future once more.
The hosts began passively, simply sitting off and hoping to contain their visitors. That strategy continued, despite Messi handing them a stern warning when curling against the upright. Shortly after they were behind. One of those to come into the side because of the absentees, Adrien Rabiot, was robbed by Sergio Busquets, allowing Messi to find space and slip in Neymar, who side-footed low past Sirigu.
PSG gradually began to offer more on the ball, but when they did find themselves in promising positions Edinson Cavani again failed to deliver on the big stage. Barcelona had no such problems when getting into advanced positions, and, with 67 minutes gone, the task for Blanc’s men became significantly greater.
Suárez was at his very best, sticking the ball through Luiz’s legs and then displaying sumptuous footwork to evade Marquinhos and Maxwell before getting just enough on his near-post shot to prevent Sirigu from keeping it at bay. It was a similar story 12 minutes later. Like the first goal, Marquinhos was caught upfield, allowing Suárez to run through and again find a gap between Luiz’s legs before finishing expertly. Mathieu continued the night’s theme of defensive mishaps to lash Van der Wiel’s drive past a largely untested Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but it was surely too little too late for PSG.