It happened four years ago, but sometimes, it still feels like it was yesterday. For Paris Saint-Germain, it is an ugly, painful scar that will always be there, regardless of what happens in Wednesday’s Champions League round-of-16 second leg against Barcelona. They defeated the Blaugrana 4-1 in the first leg, but the tie won’t feel like it’s over. On March 8, 2017, the Catalans produced the most memorable comeback in the history of football, beating the Parisians 6-1 at the Camp Nou after losing 4-0 at the Parc des Princes in the first leg.
Four years on, both teams have changed a lot. Both of the managers that night (Unai Emery for PSG, Luis Enrique for Barcelona) have since moved on to other jobs and most of the two squads has changed too, yet there are still many ties to that fateful night. Marquinhos, Layvin Kurzawa, Marco Verratti, Julian Draxler, Presnel Kimpembe and Angel Di Maria are still with PSG, like Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto and Lionel Messi, of course, are still at Barca.
Neymar, who will miss the second leg with a thigh problem as he did in the first leg, has swapped sides. So has Rafinha. Both started for Barca that night, Neymar serving as the hero with his hat trick. The Brazil international admitted in July 2019 that the “Remontada” was “one of the two best moments of [his] career,” which, as one can imagine, didn’t go down well with PSG fans.
Whatever happens on Wednesday, it won’t change that night in 2017, but for the Parisians, knocking out La Liga’s giants after destroying them on their soil first, and then finishing the job at home, would enable them to turn the page once and for all. The message this year is definitely to not think about 2017.
“You are doing our heads in with the ‘Remontada,'” answered PSG defenders Abdou Diallo on Saturday when asked about that match. “It was before. There are new players and it’s totally different now. There is no stress about it today.”
We can believe the defender, who joined the club more than two years after that epic defeat, but the fact that most of the players who were there still don’t want to talk about that night illustrates how painful that memory is. Kurzawa, for example, was there.
“The last game I played in Barcelona was a nightmare,” he said. “There were a few of us there that night and we swore to never go through this ever again. That’s why we were so focused in the first leg. I knew we were not going to lose. I could feel how everyone was so committed.”
The win at the Camp Nou three weeks ago was so important, as much mentally — exorcising the demons of 2017 — as it was for booking their place in the quarterfinals.
Like he did before the first leg, PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino has been very intelligent in his communication before this second leg. His focus has been to calm his squad down. After his team’s masterclass in the first leg, everyone within the club knows they’re in a strong position. They are confident. He knows, of course, what happened at the Camp Nou four years ago. He watched that game on TV, and was left stunned. PSG’s whole approach to the game was wrong; there was a sense of doubt within the club and the country, even a bit of fear, and Pochettino has picked up on it in his own preparations for the game.
“I have only been here for two months, but I have realised that in France, there is a terrible panic when we approach certain games in regards of injuries and preparation,” he told the media last weekend. So his message to his players and the fans, via the press, has been very positive. “We are not affected by what happened in the past. We came here with a free spirit and without bias.
“Living in the past limits your future possibilities. It brings negativity. We come with a new energy and we believe we will qualify. In football, having convictions takes you closer to the win.”
In that sense, Pochettino’s pre-match talk has differed quite a lot from the one given by Emery in 2017. He too masterminded an epic first-leg win, but bore a lot of responsibility in the humiliation of the second leg. The now-Villarreal manager still remembers the “Remontada.”
“We can look at a lot of details, but if I start from the end, I would change the referee [Deniz Aytekin] and that’s all,” Emery said. “We came back to 3-1, then we missed a chance to go 3-2, and there was a clear penalty on Di Maria not given. There are circumstances you can’t control in a game. The Barcelona players, especially [Luis] Suarez, kept falling down in the box, putting pressure on the referee until he fell in their trap.”
Maxwell and Thiago Motta were not on the pitch that night. Emery held the left-back out of the squad, while the defensive midfielder was injured. They witnessed history being made from their position in the stands.
“Our experience would have been useful, especially considering the referee, but it was so tough to go through,” Maxwell said. Like Emery, Motta blames Aytekin. “It is penalty and red card for [Javier] Mascherano for his tackle on Di Maria. Then the last two goals, we don’t concede them. It is my worst memory in Paris.”
Maybe Aytekin will watch Wednesday’s game on TV from his home in Bavaria, as refereeing a match of this calibre and importance is a distant memory for him, too. He hasn’t overseen a Champions League knockout game since that night in March 2017. This season, he has only been in charge of two games in the German second division.
Since that night in Barcelona, a lot of things have happened. PSG reached a Champions League final last season, though Barca are still waiting for their first one since 2015. The Catalans have had five managers since (Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and now Ronald Koeman), PSG three (Emery, Thomas Tuchel, Pochettino). Domestically, they both have been very strong, as always. Kylian Mbappe and Neymar have arrived in Paris, Suarez has left Barcelona and Messi could do the same in the summer. Joan Laporta is the new president of the Spanish giants and he would love to start in second stint at the club with another “Remontada.” If Koeman & Co. could pull it off, it would be even bigger than 2017’s.
All PSG want now is to qualify and move on.