The Parc des Princes was a Colosseum. The crowds of the masses roared, the people speaking in the language of passion and rage. There they prayed to the lords, to imbue their soldiers on the arena below them with the spirit, the strength, of their thousands in the stands. Though Barcelona have been wilting this season against their usual high standards, their aura often lands a starting blow halfway across the world before their players have got out of bed.
“Tell me,” PSG asked as the two sides shook hands in the obligatory pre-bout ceremony, “Do you bleed?”. Barcelona did not just bleed. They gushed. They gushed from open wounds that would not close and that no amount of sawdust could absorb. Were it not for the sheer showmanship with which PSG wielded their blades this would have been butchery.
The prayers of the Parisians worked, the wall of sonorous ritual pinning the Barca players back under a high PSG press. Cavani, pulling away from the right-back and breaking the offside trap, had his touch fail him at an important moment in the 6th minute, his failure of himself delaying his shot until the space had gone. Seconds later, he was closing down Barca keeper ter-Stegen and forcing a less than ideal kick from him instead.
10 minutes later, Draxler dinked the ball past Umtiti on the edge of the box and was tripped. No card was given, a bizarre decision. But when Angel Di Maria’s free-kick curled over the wall and in, nobody cared. The first real blow had been landed. The game was on.
Paris came out swinging straight from the goal, the high press being kicked into top gear again, but every now and then it looked as if Barca would find their way back in. Their spells of possession were lengthening, making dangerous progressions in the PSG half in the ten minutes following the goal.
But the needle swung, the hits of Barca, small though they had been, became less and less frequent, and the whistling spells thrown down by the Parisian crowd had their effect in bringing Barcelona’s dominance on the ball to a close. The match was swinging back firmly in PSG’s favour, the age – oh, the terrible, creeping age – of Andres Iniesta showing every time Paris countered.
The centre of the midfield was opening up every time Barcelona lost the ball, their hands on the field not covering the gaps in their defences. And Paris were targeting them, targeting the gaps Iniesta would leave; targeting this legend, this wizard of the game who’s commanded the respect of all and the love of many. To use his frailty to land body blows was the most insolent disrespect. But this was the Parisian Colosseum, and it was the most glorious disrespect.
Five minutes before half-time, Rabiot and Verratti led Messi down a dark alley in his own half and slashed his pockets. Verratti advanced through the gaping hole with the ball and, at the perfect moment, laid it to the overlapping Draxler. 2-0.
The second half started with the Paris high press, but the crowd was quieter. Make no mistake, nothing had quietened them apart from the fact that their gods no longer needed their prayers to make them stronger. The age of Iniesta looked to have spread to the rest of the team, struggling to impose themselves on the match. One would have been forgiven for forgetting that the trio of Suarez, Neymar, and Messi were all playing – their absence was one of the most noticeable features of Barcelona’s game.
In the back of the mind, there was a lingering worry – the reputation of Barca casting a large shadow – that PSG might coast too much and let them back into the game. A Di Maria counter-attack in the 55th minute looked like it might be the epitome of this; a man on his left, a man on his right, everyone from nature to the commentators calling on him to pass and keep the move moving.
But instead he stalled, he stopped, he checked. Cavani made a run across him, and Di Maria stroked the ball from just outside the edge of the box straight into the top left corner.
It was clear, after the re-start, that the malaise had set in for the Barcelona team. This is not an ordinary lack of momentum, but a plague, a deathly infection that sets in when a side knows they have lost and, worse, have accepted it. The Malaise. No longer are they tense and fiery and ready to come back out swinging; they go limp, their hands down, heads down, believing that they deserve every further blow that comes their way.
The brief rush of subs on the hour-mark seemed like it may slow the pace down, but the introduction of Lucas for Di Maria helped keep the flurry of punches going. PSG wasted some attacks, to be sure, but ten minutes after the hour the most wonderful moment of disrespect, a true thumbing of the nose to the established elite, took place.
Meunier, Paris’s right-back, jinked nonchalantly past heavy pressure from Neymar back in his own half. He strolled away, examining his fingernails, not as if it had been nothing but because it had been nothing. Toooo easy. Meunier continued his stroll from the right wing through midfield and into the centre, passing through the space where Iniesta should have been, were he not suffering the effects of finding himself made mortal. The right-back, thirty yards out, played the right pass for Cavani to run onto in the right-half space and the striker finished.
It was 4-0, it was murder. It was humiliation made sport.
Now was the time when PSG, and their crowd, stepped off the pace a little, taking their foot off the mutilated neck of Barcelona, although keeping a close eye on it. Ten, or slightly fewer, minutes before the end, Barca’s triple-headed serpent in attack finally awoke, and PSG’s defending became a bit more last-ditch. 6 minutes from time, Pique at the far post headed a corner back across the face, but Umtiti hit the woodwork.
The match finished 4-0, PSG going on a victory lap and Barcelona picking up their severed pieces. On Valentine’s Day, how fitting that they had been speared through their heart time and time again.
FT: Paris Saint-Germain 4 (Di Maria 18′, 55′; Draxler 40′; Cavani 71′) – Barcelona 0