It was the kind of night when the Virgin of Montserrat, San Jordi, Messi’s granny and the spirit of Catalan pride past , present and future converged on the Camp Nou.
Asked before the match how he saw his team’s chances of making up the 0-4 goal deficit against PSG, Neymar rated it at one per cent, while Luis Enrique said, “If they can score four, we can score six.”
As it turned out Neymar proved one of the team’s defining players, and Luis Enrique it’s most unexpected disciple and prophet , who, after a Damascian conversion from his own damnation, on the night it mattered, led the Barca tribe out of its wilderness.
Of course PSG allowed themselves too easily to be walked over in the first half. But to claim Barca’s victory was by default would not do justice to a win that has no precedent in the history of the Champions League, in the sheer scale of its recovery and the odds overcome.
Cavani ‘s goal for PSG in the 62nd minute had brutally interrupted the rising hopes of millions of Barca fans , puncturing the euphoria on the Nou Camp fuelled by the first three goals. For Barca now to score three more goals in less tan half an hour, without conceding another, was just too much of another mountain to climb- or so it seemed. The stadium deflated.
But then came Neymar’s stunning free-kick, bending the ball over the wall and into the left-hand corner from thirty yards out. Once he had scored, the Brazilian picked up the ball, held it close to his chest and then ran bak to the middle of the park, as if he intended to ensure that it stayed with him for the rest of the game.
And up to a point it did , just as it had done until then, for if Barca’s fight back was a collective effort, Neymar’s relentless movement on and off the ball presented PSG’s defence with its most disruptive element.
One minute into extra time, it was Neymar who made it all square on aggregate ,with a successful penalty kick, giving players and supporters a final glimmer of hope that the impossible might just happen even if PSG was still ahead on away goals.
And so it was that faith, as Luis Enrique put it afterwards, prevailed with Sergio Roberto scoring the winning goal five minutes into extra time, an extention of the game justified if only for the cynical mind-game PSG tried out by delaying its emergence from from the tunnel after the half-time break.
To have Sergio Roberto, one of the team’s youngest players and a product of the youth acedemy La Massia , score the winning goal was an ending made to measure for a club so obsessed with its sense of cultural identity but so often falling short of honouring it.
It also vindicated Luis Enrique’s trust in a player that has underperformed this season, despite the promise he showed in Barca’s youth team and as a young under-21 international. Sergio Roberto came on for Rafihna fourteen minutes away from full-time in what proved to be a crucial substitution..
This was a match that redeemed Luis Enrique as a tactician, for it involved the whole team pursuing a ruthless pressing game for all of the first half and much of the second, which succeeded in locking PSG down.
But for an occasional quick passing in mid-field, and a simply sublime back-heel by Iniesta that contributed to PSG’s own goal, Barca in its relentless hounding of the ball indivdually or in packs, and fight back spirit played more like a traditional Real Madrid or Man United of the Fergsuon heydays, than a Barca of the Cruyff/Guardiola brand. Evem Mourinho would have appoved had it not been for Suarez’s occasional simulations. For the tactics were a means to an end not an end in itself. From the outset Barca played to win-it was edge of the seat stuff but not beautiful to watch even if when it was over you felt , in the words of Pique, like making love-if you were a Barca supporter that is
Of the master crafstman , Messi, the most enduring image,was that of his face before he pounded his penalty kick into the net. With his ruddy reddish beard and maniacal eyes, he looked less an Argentine street wise kid or pibe, more like a stocky Viking about to deliver the ultimate beheading on a bloody batte field. No grace or enjoyment or trickery just the silent, cold focus and utter determination of a war-leader – Barca’s captain , on the night, mirroring the ‘furia’ of the Real Madrid’s captain Ramos the previous evening.
The rest of the Barca players were gladiators rather than poets on the night, and they had God and other benevolent spirits on their side, just like Messi. The heavens were looking down on the Nou Camp. And football like life and death can be full of emotion, and is unpredictable. Miracles do happen. Visca Barca! Visca Catalunya!