Madrid (AFP) – “Let’s go to Paris and see if we can pull off a comeback,” shouted Joan Laporta, the cheers rebounding around the room as he and his team celebrated his election on Sunday as Barcelona’s new president.
It was almost midnight and the result was not yet official, but victory was clear and already Laporta was imagining the kind of result in Paris on Wednesday that an incoming club president could only dream of.
Barca will carry a 4-1 deficit into the second leg and not only that but memories fresh of a hiding at Camp Nou, a 45-minute whirlwind when Kylian Mbappe ran and ran, and Paris Saint-Germain ran riot.
The gulf in class, not just the score, meant nobody was talking up a repeat of the famous ‘remontada’ of 2017 in the return game, least of all Barcelona’s coach and players.
“I don’t know, there is one leg left. It will be very difficult, we all know that,” said Frenkie de Jong moments after full-time, barely able to find the energy to speak.
“There is always another match,” said coach Ronald Koeman. “But after a 1-4 at home I’m not going to lie to you, there is very little chance.”
Koeman had taken off Gerard Pique with 12 minutes left, not because the defender was injured but because he wanted to preserve his fragile knee for games to come. “There was no need to take risks,” he said.
When Barcelona drew at home to Cadiz the following weekend, Koeman said he was more disappointed with that result than the loss to PSG.
“Maybe I’m just more realistic than other people,” said Koeman.
– New system –
Since then Barca have won four in a row, scoring 10 goals and conceding none. They have moved to within two points of Atletico Madrid in the league and reached the Copa del Rey final, coming back from losing a first leg 2-0 against Sevilla to win 3-2 on aggregate.
Koeman has shifted to a new system, with three central defenders, two wing-backs and two up front. It could give them more protection against Mbappe and Neymar, who is expected to be fit this time.
Good form, though, against less impressive opponents in the league and cup proved a poor gauge of Barcelona’s chances in the first leg. Unlike in 2017, they will not have a lethal front three to instigate fear, nor will there be 99,000 fans at Camp Nou, or any at all, to ignite momentum.
“Let’s be realistic,” says Joan Bertran, president of Barca fan group Penya Anguera.
“For Barca fans, this last 16 tie is basically already lost. Barca can win in Paris maybe 2-0, 3-1 at best but to score four without conceding any? It’s practically impossible.”
Yet perhaps that is all they need — any victory at all, a positive performance even — to sustain the current incline ahead of the final two months of the season.
It is a mark of how far Barcelona have fallen that a dignified exit in the last 16 of the Champions League could be considered a success but it is also the reality for a club in crisis.
Laporta’s task is to pull them out of it and his return has already created a feeling of jubilation, stemming from a nostalgia for the past but also the symbolism of a new leader looking to the future.
In his victory speech on Sunday, Laporta made sure to focus on Lionel Messi, the Argentinian who had voted in the elections for the first time and then congratulated Laporta on his success.
For now at least, there is renewed hope that Messi can be persuaded to stay.
“Seeing Leo, the best player in the world, come to vote with his son is for me a sign of what we’ve said all along,” said Laporta. “Leo loves Barca.”
Messi may have to leave if his heart is set on winning the Champions League again but under a new president with an idea he believes in, progress could yet be enough.
For Barca in Paris, it would be something to hold on to.
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