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THE MIRACLE OF THE CAMP NOU: A CATALONIAN TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

FC Barcelona engineered the greatest comeback in European Champions League history, shocking Paris Saint-Germain, 6-1, before a jubilant, disbelieving crowd of 96,000 at the Camp Nou to advance to the quarterfinals on a 6-5 aggregate.

Barcelona scored three goals after the 87th minute, with substitute Sergi Roberto netting the deciding goal in the fifth minute of add-on time.

PSG was all but assured of an upset decision after humbling the Spanish giants, 4-0, three weeks earlier in its home leg.  It was a humiliation that prompted Barcelona boss Luis Enrique to confirm that he will leave at season’s end, saying the job had “exhausted” him.

Barca got its comeback underway with a headed goal by Luis Suarez in the third minute.  Three minutes before the intermission, Andres Iniesta worked some magic in tight quarters at the end line that forced an own goal by PSG’s Layvin Kurzawa, and in the 50th minute Lionel Messi converted a penalty kick drawn by Neymar.  But in the 62nd, Edinson Cavani scored to give the French side a 5-3 overall lead and a precious road goal as the Camp Nou balloon deflated.

But in the 88th minute, Neymar ignited what became the second comeback of the evening with a magnificent free-kick strike from the left that dipped inside the near post.  A minute later, Neymar converted a penalty kick after Suarez was pulled down in the box.  Barca 5, PSG 1, and the aggregate tied at 5-5.  And in the dying moments of stoppage time, the Brazilian striker’s chipped pass enabled Roberto to beat PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp for the winner.  [March 8]

Comment:  Perhaps the greatest rally by a great team in an important competition ever.

There have been several “back from the dead” performances in huge matches.  Liverpool’s epic “Miracle of Istanbul,” its PK victory over AC Milan after falling behind, 3-0, in regulation in the 2005 European Champions League final, comes to mind.  In the World Cup, you could start with the 1982 semifinals and West Germany’s resurrection in extra time against a fine French team to erase a two-goal deficit and force a winning shootout.

But there’s that qualifier, “great team.”  The 2005 Liverpool team couldn’t match the talent and accomplishments of its Reds brethren from the 1970s and ’80s; the banged-up Germans, featuring Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner, Uli Stielike, Felix Magath and Pierre Littbarski, were dispatched by Italy in the ’82 final.

Barcelona is a great team, the greatest club side of our generation.  It’s Hungary’s “Magic Magyars” of the early 1950s, Brazil from the late 1950s to ’70, clubs like the late ’50s Real Madrid, the early ’60s Santos led by Pele, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in the ’70s, AC Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, yes, this current version of Real Madrid starring Cristiano Ronaldo.  Since 2005 it has won four Champions League titles, three FIFA Club World Cups, three European Super Cups, eight Spanish La Liga crowns, four Copas del Rey and seven Spanish Super Cups.  (It leads La Liga by a point over Real Madrid with a dozen matches remaining.)  But what will be remembered is how players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi (now riding into the sunset with a Qatari club) turned soccer into art, and that art into hardware.

And that’s why this stunning victory–without the need for overtime or a penalty-kick tiebreaker–over Paris Saint Germain was the most impressive by any team, anywhere, anytime.  Indeed, the ball bounced Barca’s way a few times:  German referee Deniz Aytekin falling for yet another instance of Suarez acting as though he’d been shot in the area by a sniper, thus setting up Neymar’s late PK; Aytekin finding an extra five minutes to tack onto the game’s end with the home side in need; the free kick drawn inside the PSG half by Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen ahead of the sequence that led to Roberto’s winner; a performance by Ter Stegen’s counterpart, Trapp, that won’t qualify for any goalkeeping instructional videos.  It’s better to be lucky than good.  And Barcelona on this night benefited from the “style-be-damned” teachings of Enrique, who, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar at his disposal, has nevertheless steered his team to a more direct approach.  But after watching FC Barcelona over the past decade run over La Liga teams, pick apart Champions League opponents with precision, it was impressive–perhaps unsettling, even–to see that this team can reach back and will its way to an unlikely triumph.  It’s as if Picasso momentarily turned his brush into a switchblade.

 



TAKE A HIKE, MEXICAN STYLE AND SCOTTISH STYLE

One-time Mexican powerhouse Pachuca, reeling from a dreadful showing in the recently concluded clausura season, placed every player on its roster on the market.

“After a meeting, we decided to make all the first-team players transferable,” the Pachuca board said in a statement.  “This does not mean they will go, but that they have the option of leaving the club if that suits their interests and those of the club.”

Among the Pachuca players are U.S. internationals Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres, Paraguay’s Edgar Benitez and Colombians Yulian Anchico, Franco Arizala and Miguel Calero.

The Gophers captured the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League but closed out the year with an upset loss to African champ TP Mazembe of the DR Congo in the quarterfinals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.  They then stumbled through the Primera Division’s closing season, posting a 4-7-6 record to bring up the rear in their six-team group.  [May 4]

Comment:  It took days for the Pachuca board to come to its decision.  In another time, in another place, a group of team directors made it known immediately that its players had to go.  From Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

IT’S TIME FOR A SUBSTITUTION OR TWO . . . OR ELEVEN

          There’s nothing like the ol’ vote of confidence from the boss–something the starting lineup of Selkirk, a team in the Border Amateur League’s “W” Division, did not receive during its darkest hour, a Scottish Cup first-round match in December 1984 played before hundreds at Stirling Albion.

          Though Stirling was a first-division side, no one was anticipating a double-digit blowout.  Still, the hosts took a 5-0 lead at the half, inspiring their bloodthirsty fans to chant, “We want ten!”  That milestone was reached after an hour, and late in the game the chant was inflated to “We want twenty!”

          With David Thompson leading the parade with seven goals and Willie Irvine not far behind with five, stirling won, 20-0.

          Late in the game, Selkirk officials on the sidelines were beyond mortified and could only laugh at the situation.  They collected as many numeral signs as possible from the fourth official and held them up in a mock signal to the referee that they wanted to substitute all eleven of their players at once.