Both these sides had already booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League but top spot was up for grabs in this final Group A match Tuesday night in Paris.
For the home side it presented them with an opportunity to turn the corner. Carlo Ancelotti’s future was reportedly on the line entering the game after picking up just 4pts from their last 5 league matches and the biggest surprise in his team selection was the omissions of Nene and Marco Verratti.
Porto boss Vitor Pereira insisted his side were in Paris to win the group and brought back many of his regulars after resting them last Friday in the domestic cup loss to Braga.
PSG use Menez, Lavezzi and Maxwell to get more width early on
A big part of PSG’s problems this season has been how narrow they have played. They have struggled to create chances in wide areas mainly because of the amount of central players Ancelotti has tried to feature in the side. In this match there was a clear indication from the start that the home team would stretch the play, particularly down the right side. The inclusion of Lavezzi from the start occupied Alex Sandro and Jeremy Menez alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic offers a lot more than the standard striker normally would. The French international worked very hard with regular lateral runs that confused the defenders and it was no surprise that it was the former Roma man who got the beating of Nicolas Otamendi in the 29th minute, winning a free kick that led to the goal.
Porto struggle to defend set pieces
PSG’s improvement in wide areas helped them get nine corners in the first half alone. Porto struggled to defend these and once again failed to get a commanding clearance on Maxwell’s free kick which was brilliantly headed home by Thiago Silva in the 29th minute.
Brilliant movement from Porto’s front three – a lesson for any team playing this system
It would prove to not be Porto’s evening but their front three still had an excellent night. Jackson Martinez, who would score an equalizer just four minutes after Silva’s header, was an excellent reference point centrally but showed signs of his versatility by occasionally moving left to allow James Rodriguez to get into the game. James is a very intelligent player who loves to come deep and when he did he had the luxury of Jackson to his left and Varela to his right. All three started the way the graphic above shows but interchanged brilliantly and never made their team too narrow because they occupied opposing full backs and helped their own full backs get forward.
The Pastore Project continues
The placement of Javier Pastore on the left was a strange one and at first seemed like a way of just getting the playmaker on the pitch. The Argentine rarely got forward beyond Danilo, coming narrower into his comfort zone, and therefore Maxwell had to be the one to get forward and bring width to the left. The PSG left back did this regularly early until Danilo played a huge part in the equalizer and forced him deeper. The goal wasn’t a good one for Pastore who allowed Danilo to easily get by him before sending in a cross for Jackson Martinez to poke home.
Despite the setback, Ancelotti stuck with Pastore as a left midfielder for the majority of the game (even when they went 4-1-4-1 when Verratti replaced Ezequiel Lavezzi) with a 2-1 lead and he seemed to grow in confidence in his battle against the forward-thinking Danilo. Clearly Pastore is suited to being a central player and looked at his best when he did play two long balls from central areas for Menez to successfully run on to. However, despite the defensive issues against Danilo, the placement of the Argentine helped PSG on the counter. With Danilo enjoying the freedom of the flank, he often would leave gaps behind him and when the play broke up the first man to start the counter was Pastore, which given his intelligence and passing ability makes sense.
In the 51st minute he broke immediately in this fashion with Menez and the pair intelligently worked a 1-2 around the impressive Nicolas Otamendi only for Helton to palm away Menez’s effort. Having Pastore play left, but not hugging the touchline, also helps PSG fall into a 4-3-3 with the ball with Lavezzi running on and Menez tucking left. Pastore can then feel comfortable joining the attack centrally, which is what happened late in the game when he had an excellent volley saved by Helton. Zlatan Ibrahimovic should have scored on the rebound, one of three really good chances he missed on a quiet night for the Swede.
Helton’s howler hands PSG the group
It was a real shame that an excellent football match was decided by a shocking goalkeeping error as Helton allowed Lavezzi’s shot underneath him at the near post. Helton, who is clearly Porto’s weak link, cost his side top spot in the group and now gives them a chance to meet the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United or Borussia Dortmund in the last 16. For PSG it was the slice of luck they needed and although they are far from the finished article they now have a real good shot at a Champions League quarter final, particularly if they can avoid Real Madrid and keep Javier Pastore confident. He remains a very key figure, no matter where they decide to play him.