Paris Saint-Germain destroys Barcelona 4-0 in Champions League round of 16 first leg

Di Maria was the man for PSG. (Getty Images)
Di Maria was the man for PSG. (Getty Images)

A difficult Barcelona season threatens to turn into a disastrous one.

Winning La Liga a third year in a row is already looking like a long shot. While 16 rounds of matches remain, Real Madrid has a hypothetical seven-point lead, assuming it wins its two games in hand. That’s a lot to overcome in Spain’s domineering duopoloy. And while Barca faces a fairly simple task in winning the Copa del Rey for the third straight year, with Alaves the opponent in the May 27 final, that won’t do if Luis Enrique’s side gets no further than the round of 16 in the Champions League.

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This became a strong likelihood on Tuesday upon the resumption of the world’s foremost club competition, after two months of winter hibernation. In their Champions League round of 16 first leg, Paris Saint-Germain quite deservedly beat Barca 4-0 in a match the Parisians could actually have won by a few more.

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Barcelona, which has been prone to a well-organized high press all season long, was simply no match for PSG’s frantic harrying and rabid counterattacks. An unusual 4-4-2 tactical ploy by Luis Enrique to start the game only served to pull Lionel Messi away from the ball and neither he nor Barca ever found their rhythm or any significant time or space on the ball in PSG’s half.

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The pattern was more or less this: Barcelona would begin its ponderous attacks with a series of square balls to inch their way up the field, if it managed to break through PSG’s initial press. And just as soon as the five-time champions of this tournament got near to PSG’s third, they’d cough it up and the home team would scamper away like a well-drilled squadron of bats out of hell.

Although PSG was without the injured defensive rock and captain Thiago Silva and the suspended holding midfielder Thiago Motta, it was the better team from the first whistle to the last. Within minutes, Edinson Cavani had a clear-cut chance on a splendid ball from the transcendent Angel Di Maria, but the Uruguayan took too long and was closed down.

In the 11th minute, Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen managed to keep PSG at bay with a stunning one-handed save on Blaise Matuidi’s rip. Adrien Rabiot then put the rebound right at Ter Stegen.

But seven minutes later, defender Samuel Umtiti, overrun once again as PSG scythed through Barcelona’s back line, chopped down Julian Draxler on the edge of the box. Di Maria then swung a superb free kick into the net, nailing Ter Stegen to the ground.

And before halftime, PSG would double the score. A midfield turnover by Messi sent the imperious Italian playmaker Marco Verratti on his way. He fed Draxler, whose clean finish beat Ter Stegen as well, although the goalie perhaps could have done better.

If you expected Barca to get its act together during the intermission, PSG’s success in unsettling the dynastic Catalans from their very first possession killed off this notion. And in the 55th minute, PSG easily traversed the entire field and found Di Maria. And the Argentine, once a star for Barca’s arch-rivals Real Madrid, was left with way too much room outside the box and curled his shot artfully past Ter Stegen for a second goal on his birthday. 3-0.

Neither the Parc des Princes nor PSG’s first-year manager Unai Emery – who won the Europa League in each of the last three seasons with Sevilla, but was initially embattled in Paris – could quite believe what was unfurling before their eyes. PSG, which had reached the semifinals of this tournament just once in 1995 and has stranded in the quarterfinals each of the last four seasons, was dismantling Barcelona. If you’ll recall, two seasons ago, Barca beat PSG 5-1 on aggregate in the quarters.

But it was all really happening for PSG. And the scoreline would get more dramatic still.

In the 71st minute, Thomas Meunier sauntered upfield with the ball in yet another break and slipped it in to Cavani, who had cut in between Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. Cavani – also celebrating his birthday – had been starved for a goal all night, so he didn’t hesitate and hammered his finish in at the near post. And that made it four.

Tellingly, Barcelona really threatened Kevin Trapp’s goal just a few times. But Andre Gomes hit the side netting in the first half, Neymar sliced his tricky volley wide in the second and Umtiti’s header dinked off the far post late on. Until the 84th minute, Barca got just a single shot off in the second half. On the whole, PSG put 10 shots on goal to Barca’s one.

Barcelona now faces an enormous task in the return leg in Catalonia on March 8. A single PSG goal there and it’s surely over. And even if no away goal is forthcoming, Barca will need to put four past a stout defense just to reach extra time.

Things are looking bleak for the darlings of world football. For the first time in a decade, Barcelona will likely fail to reach the quarterfinals.

It’s sort of funny: There is an odd similarity between Barca and PSG this season. Both sides have taken a step back from last year. Both fell behind in a league they dominated in the seasons prior. PSG seemed to struggle, initially, to adjust to life after Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who left for Manchester United over the summer. Monaco and Nice sat atop Ligue 1, although the Parisians have since caught Nice. PSG has reached the Coupe de la Ligue final, but that is insufficient consolation if nothing else is won. And so, ominously, a lot came to down to this tie with mighty Barca.

Paris Saint-Germain’s 2016-17 campaign may well have been made on Tuesday, while Barcelona’s might be ruined.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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