Revisiting La Remontada
After a Kylian Mbappé-inspired Paris Saint-Germain ripped through Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie, the Catalan club are left with a mountain to climb. Jack Donnelly takes a look back at the time this happened, with an outcome that no one could have anticipated.
Pain and disappointment are not usually two words that one would associate with FC Barcelona. The club stand tall as one of the most iconic and successful football organisations in the world, but as Kylian Mbappé curled his third – and PSG’s fourth – goal into the top right corner of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal, those two feelings emanated from every cule around the world. And yet, fans of the Blaugrana have become painfully accustomed to them.
Throwing away a 4-1 aggregate lead to Roma in 2018. Winning 3-0 against Liverpool, only to capitulate and lose 4-0 away at Anfield in 2019. That absolute thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in 2020. Ever since their last Champions League triumph in 2015, Barça have endured a bleak series of European failures. The last thing that Barcelona, rife with scandal and rumours, needed was another European misadventure, but they seem to have yet another disappointment to add to the growing list.
Or, do they?
As soon as referee Bjorn Kuipers blew his whistle for full-time at the Camp Nou to seal PSG’s 4-1 victory, the more optimistic (and slightly delirious) spectators began to sell a dream of a comeback. Granted, to say that a depleted and uninspiring Barcelona could turn this tie completely on its head in the second leg and progress into the next round of Europe’s most elite competition would be a very bold claim to make. But, seeing as it’s happened before, is such a possibility out of the question? Nine times out of ten, absolutely. But on the 8th of March 2017, Barça defied the odds and produced one of the greatest comebacks that world football has ever seen.
PSG had triumphed in the first leg after pressing Barça high, with the visitors intent on sticking to their tried and tested play style, which involved playing out from the back. If not for the heroics of ter Stegen, the visitors could have been behind by multiple goals in the opening 20 minutes. Ángel di Maria opened the scoring in the 18th minute and despite Barcelona keeping more of the ball, PSG were being more productive with their possession, and scored their second after 40 minutes. The goal came at a good time for the Parisians, as Barça were just starting to get going, but as Julian Draxler cut in from the right and found the far corner, the competition favourites had it all to do in the second half.
PSG’s press and ruthless attack continued in the second half however, with Layvin Kurzawa storming down the left and crossing to di Maria, who shimmied away from a Jordi Alba tackle to score PSG’s third of the night. Edinson Cavani wrapped up the scoring after 71 minutes after rifling a shot past ter Stegen at his near post, with a Barcelona team that boasted their famous MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Neymar) front line looking downtrodden and blown away. Similarly to their situation at present, hope was virtually non-existent for the second leg.
The second leg saw PSG come to the Camp Nou without no real worries. As far as they were concerned, the second leg was merely a formality – since 1955, 213 European first legs had finished 4-0, and not once did the losing team come back and make it through to the next round. However, Barcelona obviously had to take the game to the visitors in search of goals, and after three minutes, they had an opener. Rafinha – now at PSG – curled an awkward cross in from the right, with Marquinhos only able to header it backwards. Of the white shirts waiting for the ball to drop, no one committed and as it bounced, Luis Suárez snuck through the crowd and sprang up, getting a final touch with his head to carry the ball over the line. Despite a last-ditch clearance from Thomas Meunier, the Belgian was too late and Barça had the lead on the night.
For the remainder of the opening spell, PSG were shocked into adequacy, as the hosts took inspiration from their opponents’ first leg game plan and pressed PSG high in their own half, looking to pounce on a loose pass after forcing PSG to attempt to pass their way out of danger. Barça went close on a number of occasions – Neymar saw a powerful curled effort go just wide of the top right corner of Kevin Trapp’s goal, and Andres Iniesta saw an effort go just over the crossbar from close range. Despite a bit of pushback from PSG, Barcelona were firmly in control of this leg of the tie.
Barcelona got their second goal five minutes before half time, in extraordinarily fortunate circumstances. Receiving the ball from Neymar off the left, Suárez took a touch and played it over Marquinhos’ head into Iniesta’s path. The Brazilian centre back matched the midfielder’s run, tussling with him for possession. Iniesta managed to get a touch and backheel it across the box. As Trapp came out and got a touch to push it clear, Kurzawa was also coming back to clear it behind – neither PSG man did what they intended, as Trapp pushed the ball onto Kurzawa, who turned it into his own net. Suddenly, Barça looked as though this was possible, and the footballing world changed the channel to see the conclusion of what was considered to have been a dead tie.
Unai Emery will have been begging for the half time whistle as Barcelona continued to ramp up the pressure and luckily, PSG went into the Camp Nou changing rooms without conceding again. Emery had his men packed behind the ball, almost inviting pressure from Barcelona, but despite his initlal understanding of what this game plan would yield, his side were unable to cope with the increasing pressure and drive from Luis Enrique’s side.
The last thing that PSG needed was an early goal, but they opened the door for Barça to grab one after just three minutes of the second half. Out on the left, Iniesta clipped a ball between Marco Verrati and Meunier for Neymar to run on to, but the Brazilian was brought down as Meunier slipped on the turn and collided with the Barcelona man inside the box. Messi stepped up and, unsurprisingly, smashed the ball into the back of the net to reduce Barcelona’s overall deficit to one goal. Two more would see them through to the quarter finals – provided that PSG didn’t score, of course.
Football isn’t that simple though, and just after an hour played, it seemed as though PSG had buried the tie for good. After hitting the post 10 minutes prior, Cavani made no mistake from 10 yards out, lashing a knockdown from Kurzawa past ter Stegen to grab his side a crucial away goal.
For the rest of the match, PSG did everything in their power to prevent another Blaugrana goal, going close again themselves through Cavani and di Maria. As time ticked on with three goals needed to secure victory in the tie, it looked as though Barça’s fairy tale comeback would have a sour ending. Neymar had other ideas.
The most expensive player in the world struck for the first time in the match in the 88th minute, curling a free kick from 20 yards into the top left past a dumbstruck Trapp. Just one minute later, after regaining possession, Messi lofted a ball forward for Suárez to run on to. Having already been booked for trying to fabricate a penalty earlier in the match, the Uruguayan went down in the box under the challenge of Marquinhos – this time, the referee pointed to the spot. Neymar converted the penalty and suddenly; Barcelona were one goal away with five minutes of stoppage time left.
The entirety of stoppage time was spent in PSG’s half, with Emery pleading with his players to barricade the goal with everything that they had. Barcelona continued to push, attempting to batter down those barricades in any way possible. With a minute to go, Verrati hauled down Messi 30 yards from goal. With everyone bar the goalkeeper forward, and with 30 seconds remaining, Sergio Busquets gave Neymar the ball and after cutting inside of one PSG defender, he floated the ball into the area, desperate to find anyone in red and blue. The unlikeliest hero, Sergi Roberto, pulled away from a flat-footed Serge Aurier, raced onto the pass and threw his right boot towards the ball. His touch took it over the onrushing Trapp and as the ball rippled the net, pandemonium ensued.
The players on the pitch could hardly believe what had just happened, as Roberto sprinted away from the goal, arms wide and a delirious smile plastered on his face. The cameras cut to Emery, who turned away from the pitch with his hands to his face. Enrique’s Barcelona had completed a comeback that could be judged on the same level as Liverpool’s comeback in the 2005 final, with many proclaiming it to undoubtedly be the greatest Champions League comeback of all time. The victory was dubbed “La Remontada” (derived from the Spanish verb remontar) or, simply, The Comeback. The term was so widely used, that it was included in the 2021 edition of Larousse, the largest and most well-used dictionary in France.
Unfortunately for Barcelona, it seemed as though they had used every bit of luck they had left in securing La Remontada. Since that point, the club has crumbled both on the pitch and in the offices with any sign of success fleeting. Granted, they secured a second leg comeback against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey last week, so maybe 2021’s Barcelona do have a bit of fight left in them.
In any case, La Remontada is easily one of the greatest moments that modern football has ever seen. Can they secure something similar under very similar circumstances? The obvious reaction would be to write Barcelona off – but we said the same last time.