Barcelona 1-1 PSG: Ancelotti replicates first leg tactics, but Messi fit enough to have an impact

April 11, 2013

The starting line-ups

PSG were elimintated on the away goals rule following a good counter-attacking display.

Tito Vilanova named Lionel Messi on the bench, with Cesc Fabregas deployed upfront after his weekend hattrick. Adriano played alongside Gerard Pique at the back.

Carlo Ancelotti was without the suspended Blaise Matudi, so used Marco Verratti alongside Thiago Motta, with David Beckham on the bench.

This was similar to the first leg – both sides used broadly the same strategy, and while Barcelona dominated possession, PSG threatened on the break.

Formations and pattern

This was, once again, 4-3-3 against a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1. There were familiar battles across the pitch, with PSG getting back into a narrow shape without the ball. Verratti and Motta performed well together – Verratti was usually slightly higher up, but the duo took it in turns to press and cover, always making sure there was ‘depth’ to the midfield, and that one pass from the Barcelona midfield wouldn’t beat both of them.

The freest player was Daniel Alves, who enjoyed the freedom of the right flank as Javier Pastore tucked inside. He frequently found himself in oceans of space down the right, and should probably have had a bigger attacking impact on the game. However, Barcelona seemed surprisingly unwilling to use him – early in the second half, Fabregas shot from range when a simple ball outside to Alves was on – and when the Brazilian did get the ball, his deliveries into the box were poor.

Lavezzi and pressing

In both first halves of this tie, Ezequiel Lavezzi had a crucial impact on the game high up the pitch. Again, he pressured Sergio Busquets while also spinning in behind to support Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and here he also drifted to the left in the opening stages, getting into a couple of good positions in the space behind Alves.

Lavezzi was crucial in leading PSG’s pressing. It wasn’t intense, frantic pressure from the whole side in the opposition half, but it prevented Barcelona from playing easy passes into the midfield – and particularly in the first half, meant PSG could win the ball quickly and attack at an exposed backline. Lavezzi robbed Busquets in the opening stages for the best example of this, although he rather typically wasted the opportunity.

PSG attack down the right

Lucas Moura looked like PSG’s most dangerous attacker for much of the first half. Whether intentionally or by accident, PSG seemed to focus their attacking down their right – which was where Barcelona looked weaker, with makeshift centre-back Adriano and Jordi Alba lacking power. Christophe Jallet supported these moves well, with brave forward bursts to push back Pedro Rodriguez.

Barcelona’s pressing was lacking – it wasn’t necessarily out of keeping with their performances under Vilanova this season, but when compared to previous home legs of the Champions League in recent years, it felt like PSG were able to play the ball forward much more easily. Previously, Barcelona have got away with fielding players out of position at centre-half, because that players can push up close to the halfway line thanks to the pressure from further forward. Here, however, Adriano did plenty of work inside his own penalty box, and struggled with Ibrahimovic’s power.

In fact, PSG’s physical advantage throughout the game was very obvious. At half-time they’d won all 11 of the aerial battles – Barcelona only slightly improved on this record in the second half.

Barcelona attacks

Without Messi, Barcelona lacked an obvious orchestrator for their attacking moves. Alves was free but rarely effective on the right, while Pedro worked hard on the left but wasn’t overly involved. David Villa, who has been at his most effective in recent weeks when used solely to afford Messi freedom, looked less useful when intended to be a direct attacking weapon himself.

But while Barca missed Messi’s goalscoring, they also missed his creativity. Busquets’ early passing was disrupted by Lavezzi, which meant he didn’t have his usual impact on the game. Astonishingly, Xavi Hernandez completed all of his 96 passes, but these were very conservative, and none directly created a chance.

Andres Iniesta probably had the most responsibility to make up for Messi’s absence in a creative sense, but his forward surges aren’t as effective without defenders being attracted to Messi.

In all, PSG were probably the happier of the two at half-time, having got into various promising situations on the break, or by robbing the ball high up – but often disappointing with the final pass or shot.

Pastore goal

PSG went 1-0 up shortly after half-time with a goal that wonderfully epitomised their approach. Verratti picked up the ball close to his own box, and rather than playing a simple sideways ball to another PSG player under pressure, instead chipped a clever vertical pass that took two Barcelona midfielders out of the game – it was that positive distribution that had been so impressive in the first leg, and encouraged Ancelotti to start him here. Meanwhile, Busquets was distracted by Lavezzi’s run to the right.

Ibrahimovic collected the ball in a deep position, which dragged Adriano out of the back and left Pique covering a large area. Ibrahimovic plays as a target man in Ligue 1, but as a playmaker in the Champions League – he created six chances tonight, the most of any player, and here he exchanged passes with Pastore before assisting the Argentine for the goal. Pastore, of course, was breaking into the space Alves couldn’t get back and cover.

It had the three crucial elements of PSG’s counter-attacking approach – a positive forward pass immediately after winning possession, a run from a wide players into an empty full-back zone, and Ibrahimovic dropping deep to become a creator.


David Villa seemed to play more centrally after half-time, but Barcelona’s approach only changed significantly when Messi was introduced for Fabregas. And while it seems too easy to put Barcelona’s entire improvement down to Messi’s impact, it lifted the stadium noticeably when he came on.

Messi played very deep – significantly deeper than Fabregas – and was effectively a number ten, providing an overload in midfield and offering the creativity that was missing in the first half. His work for Pedro’s goal was typical – received the ball in front of Verratti and Motta, yet danced past both and played a pass into Villa, who laid it off for Pedro to score.

PSG response

Ancelotti essentially made three straight swaps – Kevin Gameiro for Lavezzi, Beckham for Varratti, then Gregory van der Wiel for Jallet. PSG started playing much more direct football – but they didn’t do it particularly well. Ibrahimovic was the obvious target, but PSG didn’t get players up in support of him. Marc Bartra – who replaced Adriano at the same time as Messi came on – proved a much more useful aerial weapon than the Brazilian.

Barcelona held the ball well, while Vilanova brought on Alex Song for Villa – he sat solidly in front of the back four alongside Busquets. The home side also tempted PSG into some rash tackles, allowing Barca to slow the tempo of the game, and see out the draw.


The quality of PSG’s display was underlined by the fact they recorded eight shots on target compared to Barcelona’s two – a couple were weak efforts, but Victor Valdes was forced into some excellent saves. The away side won the ball high up the pitch and also broke quickly – often Barcelona didn’t press, and when they did, PSG played around it well.

After Messi’s introduction, Barcelona’s belief changed as much as their tactics – but Messi did play significantly deeper than Fabregas, causing problems for Verratti and Motta in that zone. Until then, Barcelona had been disappointing – perhaps unsure of whether to attack or play out a cautious 0-0, and this wasn’t one of their best Champions League performances.

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