Three weeks before, Barcelona was out of the Champions League — beaten, 4-0, in Paris, humiliated and exposed. No team in the competition’s history had ever recovered from such a yawning deficit.
A few days later, Luis Enrique, Barcelona’s manager, confirmed that he would depart at the end of the season, saying the job had “exhausted” him. The task awaiting his successor, all of a sudden, seemed a mammoth one.
This Barcelona team has dominated European soccer’s consciousness for the past decade. It has won the Champions League four times — 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015 — and has been present in the semifinals of the competition for the last seven years.
It is, though, an aging squad. A handful of its stalwarts have already departed – Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol — and more still are reaching the autumn of their careers. Messi, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets are all nearing 30; Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique are beyond it.
The days when Barcelona passed its opponents to death have long gone, too, abolished by Enrique in favor of a more direct approach designed to get the best out of the so-called M.S.N. strike force: Messi, Suarez and Neymar. It worked, too, for a time, but after a while, when all the parts are different, it becomes clear the car is not quite the same as once it was.
That night in Paris had the air of a final curtain. Barcelona would get a new coach this summer, and soon it would have to start thinking about bringing in some new players, too, ones not to serve as understudies to its stars, but to be trained as replacements. Three weeks before, Barcelona had not just seen its European campaign ended, but a chapter of its history closed.
Thirty minutes before, the message had been reinforced. For an hour in this second leg, there had been hope, at least, a willing suspension of disbelief. Suarez had scored in under three minutes; Iniesta’s persistence had forced Layvin Kurzawa into an own goal just before halftime; Messi had converted a penalty kick just after it.
Barcelona needed just one more. The miracle was close enough to touch; hope transformed into belief. “Si se puede, si se puede,” the crowd chanted, borrowing from former President Obama. Yes we can, yes we can.
And then it was all snatched away. Barcelona started the evening knowing that one mistake, one slip, one lapse in concentration would — should — prove fatal, thanks to the away-goals rule. When it came, the punishment by Edinson Cavani, it was as though the air had been sucked from the stadium, as though thousands had been abruptly awaked from a dream; voices were muffled, flags fell to half-mast. That was it. Barcelona had 30 minutes to score three times. Barcelona was out.
What followed, as Enrique admitted, was “indescribable.” There had been a sense, in the buildup to this game, that if there was one team that might be able to overturn a 4-0 defeat, it was Barcelona. “While there is Messi, there is hope,” as the front pages of one of the city’s sports daily publications had it.
All of that, though, was predicated on the idea that Barcelona might score four, to force extra time and penalties, or five, without reply, to win outright. That was the impossible comeback. Scoring three in half an hour — “against an opponent of this quality,” as Enrique pointed out — is something else entirely, something beyond impossible.
Not to Barcelona, not to this Barcelona. Ivan Rakitic, the midfielder, described it as the club’s “Super Bowl” moment, with Neymar taking the part of Tom Brady. It was Neymar whose free kick, with five minutes to play, gave Barcelona its fourth; it was Neymar whose nerveless penalty, as the game ticked into injury time, set up the grand finale.
Five minutes of injury time, five minutes to find one goal. “Like a film,” Enrique said, but “a horror film, not a thriller.” Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, the goalkeeper, abandoned his post, trotted up the field. Hope, rather than expectation. Barcelona slung crosses into the box, all pretense at highbrow philosophies forgotten. Hope, rather than expectation.
And then a cross, a flick and Roberto’s outstretched boot, diverting the ball into the net, and P.S.G.’s players were on their knees and Barcelona’s bench was pouring onto the field and Messi was standing there, on the boards, in front of the fans, his arms aloft in victory, before falling into them, as you would in a dream.
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