David Beckham starts as Paris Saint-Germain hold Barcelona
Paris Saint-Germain 2 Barcelona 2
Twice, in a chaotic, raucous, flare-lit final 12 minutes, Paris Saint German equalised against Barcelona to keep themselves alive in the Champions League.
Whether 2-2 will be enough to take Paris all the way through to the semi-finals is unlikely. But the draw was exactly what they deserved after a performance of remarkable commitment, perseverance and discipline. Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore stood out, as did a mature and careful David Beckham and manager Carlo Ancelotti, who surprisingly and rewardingly started the 37-year-old before making the changes which turned the game.
"I think we deserved a draw tonight," said Beckham. "There's no reason why we can't go there and get a result. I was very happy, the manager [Carlo Ancelotti] has always shown confidence in me. Tonight was a big moment for the club – it doesn't get much better than these nights."
With 15 minutes left Paris, though, were in a position many sides have found themselves in over the years. They were 1-0 down to Lionel Messi's first-half strike and chasing the famous passing carousel. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets looked content and capable to play out time with their taunting, teasing football, taking their lead back to the Nou Camp.
But, unlike countless carousel-passengers down the year, Paris managed to fight their way off. Second-half substitutes Jeremy Menez and Marco Verratti won consecutive free-kicks in attacking positions. Barcelona repelled the first one but the second was met by Thiago Silva, winning yet another ball on a moutainous night. His header struck the post but fell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who stabbed the ball in. Parc des Princes erupted, and in all the noise it was ignored that Ibrahimovic was offside.
If Paris thought that their work and fight had been rightly rewarded with a draw, they were 15 minutes too early. Because Barcelona, who always seem to find a way, went back in front in the penultimate minute. Cesc Fabregas, who came on for Messi at half-time, played a perfect through pass for Alexis Sanchez. Salvatore Sirigu charged out, Sanchez bought the foul and Xavi scored the penalty.
And if it felt as if all of Paris' work was for nothing, that their near-perfect game would still leave them with an impossible task, the players felt differently. Because, with the final move of the match, they equalised again. A desperate punt into the box was nodded back by Ibrahimovic to Blaise Matuidi. On the edge of the box, Matuidi smacked it, Marc Bartra deflected it and it slipped beyond Victor Valdes.
Paris' late charge had been rewarded and their substitutes had delivered, but this draw was not just earned in the final 20 minutes. For the first 70 the hosts had been impressive in a different way, not always playing with as much quality as Barcelona, of course, but more than matching them in other ways.
Ancelotti had sprung a surprise with his decision to start Beckham, but it had worked. This morning's L'Equipe featured an article headlined "Too intense for Beckham", doubting whether he still had the legs to do the running required to smother Barcelona's midfield. But he did, at least for 70 minutes, when he was replaced by Marco Verratti.
"I played him there because of his ability to play forward passes and change the game," Ancelotti explained afterwards. "In the first 30 minutes he was the key as he was playing good football, with his passes."
Beckham and Matuidi anchored Paris' five-man harassment unit which created more early chances than Barcelona. Ibrahimovic's cross was deftly chested on by Javier Pastore to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was sufficiently distracted by Busquets that the ball hit the far post. Pastore and Ibrahimovic forced Valdes into diving saves before Ibrahimovic dragged a shot just wide from another counter-attack.
But genius can trump competence and there was nothing they could do to stop Barcelona from taking the lead, seven minutes before the break. A Barcelona corner was cleared to Dani Alves, just inside the visitors' half. It takes a lot to surprise a whole stadium but Alves did that, curling a pass with the outside of his right foot over the defence onto the run of Messi.
Messi, to the surprise of almost no-one, let the ball bounce and go across his body before firing it left-footed into the bottom corner. Messi nearly added a second just before the break but he did not emerge half with a thigh injury which may rule him out of next week's return leg.
Paris knew they needed to change the pace in the second half, as going to the Nou Camp having lost the first leg is not a lot of fun. There was a point, with 20 minutes left, when Matuidi and then Beckham were booked, when it seemed as if Paris had run out energy. But Ancelotti made some changes and Paris fought back.
Man of the match Silva.
Match rating 9/10.
Referee W Stark (Ger).
Second leg Wednesday 10 April, Nou Camp
Belfast Telegraph Digital