By: AP & Reuters
Paris Saint-Germain set this season’s Champions League alight on Tuesday with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in Group F. David Luiz and midfielder Marco Verratti scored their first goals for PSG as the French club produced its best performance of the season to defeat a Barcelona side that is unbeaten in the Spanish league.
Barcelona had hoped they had ironed out the defensive weakness that marred their 2013-14 season, but Tuesday’s 3-2 Champions League reverse at Paris St Germain appeared to suggest the opposite.
David Luiz, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi all breached the visitors’ defence as PSG took early control of the group and handed Barca’s new coach Luis Enrique his first competitive reverse since he took over at the end of last season.
Luiz put PSG ahead in the 10th minute, with Messi equalizing two minutes later. Poor Barcelona defending allowed Verratti — one of the smallest players on the pitch — to drift in unmarked to head PSG ahead again in the 26th. Midfielder Blaise Matuidi finished off a fine move to give PSG a 3-1 lead in the 54th, but Barcelona’s Brazilian star Neymar replied in the 56th, again exposing PSG’s defensive vulnerability after the euphoria of scoring. Barcelona almost equalized in the 85th when Munir El Haddadi struck the base of the post with a stinging shot from outside the penalty area and Sandro Ramirez dragged his shot wide in the closing seconds.
PSG had drawn six of nine matches before the game and had been woefully short of confidence, while Barcelona had not conceded a goal in seven matches and scored 18.
Although PSG was missing top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic because of a heel injury it did not tell, and the South American forward line of Brazil’s Lucas, Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani and Argentina’s Javier Pastore finally looked like it was worth 150 million ($189 million). Pastore, in particular, was in inspired form with his elegant runs, lightning-quick feet and wonderfully weighted passes. Barca closed PSG high up the pitch initially, but thanks to composed passing from midfielders Thiago Motta and Verratti, PSG eased into the game.
From the home side’s second free kick of the game, Pastore curled the ball into the box and Luiz, showing great dexterity to control it with his right, then switched feet before planting a low shot past goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Celebrations were cut short, though, as Messi swapped passes with Iniesta and slotted a clinical shot past goalie Salvatore Sirigu and into the bottom corner.
It was his 402nd career goal and 68th Champions League goal – putting him three behind all-time leading scorer Raul Gonzalez. With Messi causing panic every time he got the near the ball — let alone on it — PSG’s defense left more space for Neymar. He almost made the most of an inspired looped pass over the top from Messi, but could not keep his shot down at full stretch.
Ter Stegen was at fault for the second PSG goal when he badly misjudged Motta’s corner from the right, and Verratti nodded the ball inside the post to end his PSG goal drought in his 62nd appearance.
On the offensive
Luiz then made two crucial blocks inside the area as Barca pressed hard for a quick equalizer, and Cavani got a huge ovation from the Parc des Princes crowd after sprinting back to stop Andres Iniesta.
PSG started the second half on the attack, with Pastore breaking through Barca’s midfield and finding Cavani, who could not quite adjust his body enough to get a shot away. Pastore has been in and out of the side, but with his confidence running high he was a major threat and it was his slick pass that created the third goal.
PSG coach Laurent Blanc hugged Pastore when he came off, and the relief was evident as the players raised their arms at the final whistle.