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Apr 3, 2013

Fearless PSG rattle Barca

"An explosion of happiness and joy", was how former PSG midfielder Vincent Guerin this week described the goal he scored to knock Johan Cruyff's Barcelona out of the 1995 Champions League quarter-finals. It may not have been a tie-winner on this occasion, but Blaise Matuidi's dramatic stoppage-time equaliser was met with an eruption to rival that memorable night at the Parc des Princes eighteen years ago.

For PSG it was felicitation. For Barca, capitulation. First 1-0 up and then 2-1 ahead, the Catalans once again showed their fallibility away from home as they failed to keep their cool in this famously bohemian city. For Victor Valdes, the ending was particularly ignominious - his role in allowing Matuidi's effort to tamely creep past him was in stark contrast to the superlative showing he mustered for Spain in Paris just eight days ago.

It had for a long while seemed the return of Tito Vilanova - a welcome presence back on the touchline after two months of chemotherapy - had inspired Barcelona to shed the poor travelling form that characterised his time away undergoing treatment in New York, a spell that brought just two wins in seven games. Although the Catalan metronome appeared a little off beat in the first half, a majestic goal put them in front. Dani Alves producing a jaw-dropping through ball with the outside of his right boot, which Lionel Messi gleefully dispatched.

It was a moment of wonderful improvisation that came at a time when PSG were dominating. Carlo Ancelotti - seeking a sixth Champions League semi-final berth in eight attempts - admirably adopted an adventurous approach, going toe-to-toe with Barcelona from the off and rejecting the notion they should be stifled, a la Inter Milan and Chelsea, rather than stormed. It also put paid to the pre-match suggestion that captain of containment Jose Mourinho had been offering the Italian any tactical advice.

Led by the daring duo of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura, returning to the starting line-up after rest and injury respectively, PSG were keen to pick up where Guerin, Ginola and George Weah left off in '95. Also at the heart of proceedings was David Beckham, making his first Champions League start since a 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in the colours of AC Milan three years ago; the 37-year-old's experience of such high-pressure occasions favoured over the youthful exuberance of Marco Veratti.

"I thought the beginning of the match was really good," Ancelotti reflected after the game. "It was not just defensive play. We played really well the first 30 minutes. After Messi scored it was really difficult but we showed good character and a good attitude on the pitch ... I put David in because he has ability to play forward passes and change the play. In the first 30 minutes it was key for us to show good football. We played really well with good passes - because he was on the pitch."

Barcelona appeared almost stunned during the opening exchanges that PSG had opted to take the game to them in front of a magnificently atmospheric Parc des Princes, with Lavezzi - a whirling dervish early on - nearly forcing a goal after his shot deflected off an out-of-sorts Sergio Busquets and onto the post. Vilanova's side did have chances of their own, though, with Alves - a thorn in the side of old team-mate Maxwell all game - having a goal chalked off before his decisive contribution to the opener. It was clear Barca were targeting the flanks, but while this definitely remains an area of the pitch in which PSG could improve, right-back Christophe Jallet put in a lionhearted display as he attempted to quell the dual threat of Alexis Sanchez and Jordi Alba, flinging himself around impulsively when confronted with anyone in orange and yellow.

Thiago Silva, too, was defensively immense, turning in a display that led Ancelotti to crown him "the best in the world" in his position. But while Messi and the injured playmaker's half-time replacement Cesc Fabregas were among those to feel the brunt of the Brazilian's physicality in the PSG penalty box, it was at the other end of the pitch where he made his most telling intervention. In last season's Champions League group stage, Thiago Silva scored against the Catalans and he was a set-piece scourge again as he rose to head against the post. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on hand, and admittedly offside, to demonstrate that he has poaching as well as panache in his locker.

Fireworks and flares were lit as the deafening roar of defiance filled the stadium. Ten minutes later, they were silenced.

Despite being apoplectic that the goal was allowed to stand, Barca ploughed on and ten minutes later, when Alexis Sanchez was ploughed down, it appeared they had been redeemed. Ancelotti was not so convinced, later saying: "The penalty on Alexis wasn't one, it was a gift from the referee." The Italian's protestations did not matter, though, as Xavi converted to put Barca on the brink of victory.

On an absorbing night in Paris, however, there was to be one final twist. Matuidi - already ruled out of the second leg having been booked - struck a 94th-minute leveller that brought an irrepressible joie de vivre to the Parc des Princes. They may not have Weah and Guerin, but the PSG class of 2013 could become equally exalted alumni, should they claim an unlikely semi-final berth with victory at Camp Nou in a fortnight.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Thiago Silva. An absolute colossus at the back for PSG, the captain gave Barca a glimpse of what might have been - missing out on the Brazilian and persevering with Javier Mascherano as an auxiliary centre-back seems all the more questionable for the Catalans now. A sterling defensive performance, both on the ground and in the air, was enhanced with an assist for Ibrahimovic's goal.

PSG VERDICT: A draw was the least deserved after a daring first-half display and a spirited fight at the end of the match. It was the first real test of this PSG side's credentials as a potential European superpower and if the personnel remain in place, there is no doubt they should compete on the continent and dominate domestically. Ancelotti must be credited for his offensive outlook from the start and also for his positive changes, with Marco Veratti, Jeremeny Menez and Kevin Gameiro all offering energy and attacking intent after their second-half introductions.

BARCELONA VERDICT: After the initial surprise of PSG going gung-ho, Barca exerted the sort of control they have become accustomed too, finishing the game with typically dominant possession stats of 68%-32% in their favour. They actually played their best football in the first 25 minutes of the second-half, after Messi went off, but a loss of composure cost them. Mascherano's warly prognosis of six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury leaves Barca dangerously short at the back, with Ibrahimovic likely to fancy his chances up against either Alex Song or inexperienced Martin Montoya in the second leg.

IN THE LAP OF THE GODS: The demand for tickets - reportedly up to a million people chasing 50,000 elusive seats - was also understandably high among the media, with nearly 1,000 clamouring for around 300 spots. Up in the highest reaches of the Parc des Princes, in the overflow area above the press box, was this particular reporter's seat and with laptop perched on knee, it really was a spectacular viewpoint from which to take in an incroyable European night.

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