The New England Patriots’ Super Bowl 25-point comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback against the Golden State Warriors after trailing 3-1 in the NBA Finals. The Chicago Cubs’ comeback against the Cleveland Indians after trailing 3-1 in the MLB World Series. These are the comebacks in recent sports history that have been defined as some of the greatest ever.
Well, guess what? F.C. Barcelona’s second leg comeback in the Champions’ League Round of 16 against Paris St. Germain on Wednesday afternoon might just be the top of them all. I know that may be a bold claim to make given how many great comebacks there have been as of late, let alone in the history of sports. However, the statistics and the context behind Barcelona’s unthinkable 6-1 win over PSG are hard to ignore.
Let me take you back a few weeks in time to when Barcelona was flat-out embarrassed after suffering a 4-0 loss away to PSG in the first leg. The team with the best three forwards in the world, and all the trophies to show for it, was in shambles. PSG broke down the Barça defense with an inspiring attack and looked like the better team by far. And most importantly, the Parisian team held Barcelona scoreless away from home, which meant that if PSG scored just one away goal at Barcelona in the second leg, it would take six from the Catalans to advance to the next round.
In the weeks since that heartbreaking loss, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique played with the team’s formation in hopes of inspiring a new identity and re-establishing the team’s confidence. Enrique instilled a strange 3-4-3 before a game against Atletico Madrid and stuck with it for the next two weeks against Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo, earning 6-1 and 5-0 wins, respectively.
Additionally, Enrique announced after win over Sporting that he would be leaving his post as manager at the end of the season. His decision was timed perfectly so that the Barcelona players’ would fight passionately until the end of Enrique’s tenure as coach. All the small things that Enrique did in the build-up to the second-leg matchup with PSG at home were vital to the team’s success Wednesday. Yet, after all that, Barça still had a game to play and they had to play it perfectly.
From the very beginning, you could feel something special was about to happen. The fans at Camp Nou were hopeful, the players were confident and the coaching staff had a master plan to stifle PSG with a high-pressure attack with and without the ball. That came into effect immediately, from the moment of kick-off, and resulted in a 1-0 lead just three minutes into the game coming off a header from Luis Suarez. That early and very much desperately needed goal would set the tone for the remainder of the game.
As the game progressed and Barcelona chipped away at the aggregate lead, scoring three goals in the first 50 minutes, it seemed more and more feasible that the Spanish side could pull off the impossible. That is, until the 62nd minute when PSG’s Edinson Cavani hit a lovely half-volley that gave them a crucial away goal and meant that Barça would need six goals to advance. At that point, the fans started to think it may be over, and perhaps the Barcelona players did as well. Hell, even I did.
But then, moments of pure brilliance and poise from the Brazilian wonder Neymar brought the entire city of Barcelona to life. With just three minutes to go, plus stoppage time, Neymar curled in a free kick over the wall and into the upper 90, freezing PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp in his place and making it 4-1 for the game and 5-4 for PSG on aggregate. Just two minutes later, Suarez earned a penalty kick, albeit questionably called, that Neymar would calmly slot into the back of the net to even the score on aggregate, 5-5. And the game wasn’t over then.
Five minutes of stoppage time added and Barcelona needed almost every last second of them. At this point, even after scoring five goals in the game, they would still be knocked out on away goals. As the last 30 or so seconds ticked on the clock, it was Neymar again who stepped up. With the entire team, including goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, pushed forward into PSG’s 18-yard box, the Brazilian would take a free kick from just inside the attacking half.
After the initial cross was cleared back to Neymar, he faked a cross in with his stronger right foot, cut onto his weaker left foot and delivered a perfectly weighted pass into the box. That’s where the most unlikely of heroes, Barcelona youth system product Sergi Roberto, waited to make his run and made history by putting Barça ahead 6-1 for the game, and more importantly, 6-5 on aggregate with one of the last kicks of the game. The coaches and players, who had not really celebrated any of their goals for the night knowing it meant nothing without advancing, went ballistic. Camp Nou was as electric as it had ever been and fans were seen crying tears of joy.
Here is a link to the game highlights which can give you an idea of how it felt in the stadium as the game progressed:
Besides the incredibly difficult nature of coming back from 4-0 down in the first leg, which had never been done in European Cup history prior to Wednesday by the way, this comeback was made even more amazing by the way they did it in the last seven or eight minutes of the game. Only one other similar story I can think of in soccer is how Manchester City scored two goals in five minutes over QPR to win the Premier League in 2012. That was amazing, no doubt, but Barcelona took it one step further with an extra goal.
Perhaps the most unbelievable statistic in all of this shows just how suffocating the Barcelona defense was without the ball toward the end of the game. With the entire team pushing forward and holding an extremely high line of defense, Barça limited PSG to just FOUR completed passes from the 85th minute until full-time. Even more unbelievable, three of those four completed passes came from the kick-offs after Barcelona had scored, per @JamesMcManus1 of Squawka Football.
This Barcelona team truly put everything they had into completing the comeback and it showed in those last eight minutes. To put it in perspective just how amazing this comeback was and how it stacks up to another recent comeback, before Barcelona scored to make it 4-1 in the 87th minute, they were “Six times as unlikely to win as the Pats were when down 28-3” in the Super Bowl, per ESPN’s Darren Rovell.
Furthermore, according to Rovell, Barcelona had 50-to-1 odds to qualify for the Champions’ League quarterfinals after PSG scored to make it 3-1 in the 62nd minute. Those odds are incredibly low for a team of Barça’s caliber and it just goes to show how unlikely the comeback was.
In my opinion, Barcelona’s performance against PSG easily stacks up with some of the best comebacks of all-time. It may be difficult to compare to seven-game series 3-1 comebacks such as the Cubs’ or the Cavaliers’, but it is surely among the greatest of all-time, perhaps second only to a certain Boston Red Sox 3-0 series comeback that I am begrudgingly mentioning. For me as a soccer fan, those last few moments are up there with Landon Donovan’s late goal in the World Cup against Algeria in all-time great soccer moments. It was really that incredible.
Regardless of where it’s placed in the history books, good luck knocking Barcelona out of the Champions’ League. They are hungry, they are passionate and they are more than capable of doing something like this to the best teams in the world.