Barcelona have qualified for the Champions League knockout stages for the first time under Xavi Hernández and need just one point to finish the group stage as Group H winners thanks to a hard-fought and well-earned 2-1 win against FC Porto at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night. Barça had to come from behind after Porto took the lead in the first half, but the Blaugrana showed mental strength and played a very good all-around team game to earn three big points and move on to the Round of 16 with a game to spare.
Barça were the better team to start the game, with 20 minutes of strong possession works and moments of danger thanks in large part to the aggressive play of Raphinha and João Cancelo, who were tasked with providing service from the wings and constantly took on defenders and fired shots from distance looking to test goalkeeper Diogo Costa.
Porto mostly defended to begin the game but slowly but surely started to hurt Barça with their pressing and counter-attacking, and a goal by Mehdi Taremi ruled out for offside was the warning shot fired by the visitors before a killer counter-attack ended with a shot by Galeno that was saved by Iñaki Peña and fell perfectly to Brazilian winger Pepê who was quickest to the rebound and gave the Dragões the lead in the 30th minute.
But before any tension could take hold of Barça’s team or the fans, an instant and crucial response: a very good, quick passing sequence from one side of the pitch to the other ended with a sensational solo goal by Cancelo, who dribbled past João Mário with ease and fired a gorgeous curler into the bottom corner just 90 seconds after Porto’s opener.
The two quick goals blew the game wide open, and both sides threw haymakers at each other like a wild heavyweight boxing fight. João Félix and Raphinha each missed a giant chance for Barça, and Peña had to make a world-class save to deny a surefire goal by Evanilson.
The halftime whistle came to end a thrilling opening frame, and the score was somehow only 1-1 even though both teams could have easily scored two or three goals. If the game remained that open, the second half promised to be wild and it was simply impossible to predict a winner at the break.
Barça almost scored a Goal of the Season contender 15 seconds after the restart as João Félix fired a rocket into the crossbar, and Félix missed another good chance just a couple of minutes later as Barça started the period strong and forced Porto to defend deeper than they wanted to.
Félix and Cancelo continued to torment the right side of Porto’s defense, and the two combined to give the Blaugrana the lead close to the hour mark: the two Portuguese teammates made a couple of one-two’s in a short space and Félix used his right foot inside the box to flick the ball away from Costa and into the bottom corner for a gorgeous goal to complete the home team’s comeback.
The early goal in the second half calmed Barça’s nerves and the Blaugrana were suddenly very comfortable keeping the ball and looked to score a third without taking unnecessary risks. Porto had very little joy on the counter and Ronald Araujo was absolutely crucial in killing a couple of potentially dangerous attacks from the visitors, and the Catalans reached the final 15 minutes in a good position to finish the job and secure the victory.
They had a big opportunity to kill off the game with 10 minutes to go but Ferran Torres missed a relatively easy chance from the edge of the box, and Porto began sending more and more bodies forward looking to take risks and try to earn a late equalizer. They had a couple of dangerous moments but for the most part Barça did a good job keeping the ball and running out the clock.
The final whistle came to officially clinch a spot in the Round of 16 for a Barça team that responded to adversity and played their best game in over a month against a really tough Porto side that made them earn it. But the Blaugrana stepped up, the forward players finally played up to their standard, and the Catalans earned a victory that they needed to avoid drama in the group stage finale.
Now Barça get to travel to the worst team in the group knowing they need only a point against Royal Antwerp to win the group. This is a very encouraging night for so many reasons, and it’s been a while since I’ve been proud to watch Barça play in a big game. They fought when they needed to fight, but they never forgot to play. If they bring both the fight and the football to every game, there is no one this team can’t beat.
Barcelona: Peña; Araujo, Kounde, Iñigo, Cancelo (Balde 82’); Pedri, Gündogan, De Jong; Raphinha (Yamal 90’), Lewandowski, Félix (Ferran 75’)
Goals: Cancelo (32’), Félix (57’)
Porto: Costa; Mário (Sánchez 67’), Pepe, Cardoso (Namaso 90’), Zaidu; Pepê, Varela, Eustáquio (Nico 81’), Galeno (Martínez 90’); Evanilson (Conceição 81’), Taremi
Goal: Pepê (30’)