Advantage Barcelona as Christensen’s header sees off PSG

Raphinha double combined with Christensen’s header sends Barcelona home with the lead despite strikes from Dembelé and Vitinha

PSG 2 Barcelona 3

On a gripping, frantic night at the Parc des Princes, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona produced a game that felt like the opposite of the “Barca DNA” Xavi had spoken about in the build-up to this quarter-final first leg.

Never mind control, patterns and a fight for space. This was an increasingly wild game, building from a mannered start into a second half of sweeping mob-handed attacks, feather-light defending and chances that simply came and went, posts clipped, shots blocked in desperation.

By the end Barcelona had probably done enough to deserve their 3-2 lead heading back to the Camp Nou for the second leg. But nobody who watched the wilder parts of this game would see anything other than more goals on both sides there. Frankly, this could have been anything.

Security around the Parc des Princes had been significantly beefed up before the game in response to the threat from the terror group Isis. Drones circled the sky. Heavily tooled-up police occupied the corners. Paris 2024 is still planning a mass city-centre Olympic opening ceremony a hundred days from now. It keeps on being scaled back. Expect a little more of that from here.


Inside its brutalist concrete walls the Parc was rocking at kick-off, drenched in a lengthy pre-match Star Wars-themed son-et-lumière show that involved playing the Imperial March quite a lot, and climaxed with the unfurling of an enormous militaristic Yoda banner at one end. And why not?

Barcelona had Frenkie de Jong back from injury in central midfield, with the hugely exciting teenager Lamine Yamal starting. PSG had Marquinhos covering at right-back again and Marco Asensio starting through the centre of the attack.

The home team set out to stretch the pitch early on, wingers staying very wide, trying to disrupt the central yellow box. But it was Barça who had the first real sight of goal, Raphinha galloping on to a straight punt from Marc-André ter Stegen, suddenly in huge green acres of space, but crowded out by Gianluigi Donnarumma in extremis.

After some laboured spells of PSG possession, it was Raphinha who won a corner on the right with 20 minutes gone that ended with the ball cleared off the PSG line, Robert Lewandowski leaping above Donnarumma’s flailing fist to send a looping header towards goal. Nuno Mendes was there to hook the ball clear. Moments later Raphinha dropped deeper, forcing a full-stretch palm around the post with a low skimming drive.

PSG kept the ball for long periods, but this was stodgy possession, always funnelling the ball towards the two obvious outlets, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé. Luis Enrique has been a convincing coach of PSG. The fans love him. The team is on a 27-game unbeaten run. Denuded of its basking superstars, this PSG project has begun to resemble an actual sport-style team-type object in the last few months. But it is still a linear, straight-line affair, baroque attacking riches sacrificed for energy, physical presence and a more basic set of patterns.

Barça looked a far more supple attacking unit. And they duly took the lead on 35 minutes with a goal made and scored by their three-man front line. Lewandowski carried the ball across the halfway line, broke a flimsy challenge and shuttled a pass out to Yamal on the right. His cross was deflexed back towards Raphinha, who finished beautifully, lofting the ball beyond the covering blue shirts and into the top corner. With De Jong and Ilkay Gündogan starting to take control in midfield, a 1-0 half-time lead was well-deserved.

Luis Enrique rejigged during the break, bringing on the jet-heeled Bradley Barcola for Asensio and shifting Dembélé to a roving number nine role. It worked almost immediately, Dembélé drifting out to combine with Mbappé on the left, cutting inside and lashing a thrillingly powerful left-footed shot high into the net past Ter Stegen.

Within five minutes of the restart the game had turned on its head completely. This time the goal was beautifully constructed, Fabián Ruiz playing a lovely little delayed pass to meet Vitinha’s run through the inside left channel. Nobody in a yellow shirt followed the run or blocked the channel. Vitinha slid the ball into the corner of the net without breaking stride to make it 2-1 to PSG.

Faced with this sustained aggression, Barcelona’s entire defensive structure had simply dissolved like an over-dunked digestive biscuit. For a while they were clinging on, thrown by the more potent angles created by Dembélé's runs from the centre to the flanks. Barcola veered in from the right like a downhill slalom skier, a wonderfully easy footballer in full flight, and saw a powerful shot palmed up on to the bar.

Xavi responded by sending on João Félix and Pedri, and just as quickly Barcelona were level again. This was a beautiful goal, albeit one conceived and executed under zero pressure from the PSG midfield and defence. Pedri had time to look up and loft a delicate pass right down the centre. Raphinha’s volley into the corner on the run was a dreamy, high-craft piece of finishing.

By this stage Barcelona had Gündogan playing up front with Lewandowski, with Félix and Pedri just behind, and a hugely engaging sense of mild chaos in the air. Dembélé shimmied through on the left unimpeded by anything close to a defensive challenge and clipped a shot on to the post. But with 76 minutes gone it was 3-2 to the visitors, Andreas Christensen (having only just snuck onto the pitch) heading straight in from a corner with his first touch of the ball, again unmolested by any kind of obvious defensive attention.

Barça hung on to their lead at the death, but only just. This one still has plenty of road left to run.

- Guardian