By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona’s decision to keep faith with late bloomer Sergi Roberto paid off on Wednesday when he slid in to score in the 95th minute and complete a barely believable comeback against Paris St Germain to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
Before his crucial strike in the epic second leg at the Nou Camp, Roberto had only scored five goals in all competitions since Pep Guardiola gave him his Barca debut in 2010 and had not netted this season.
Coach Luis Enrique, who has known Roberto since he brought him into the club’s reserve team, admitted he was an unlikely figure to grab the final goal in the 6-1 drubbing and complete Barca’s historic comeback from a 4-0 defeat in the first leg.
“Sergi Roberto is a great player but he stopped scoring goals when he was a teenager. I always tell him he wouldn’t be able to score in a rainbow,” Luis Enrique said.
“I value and appreciate him a lot and that’s why I gave him his debut in the reserve team but this victory was down to the faith of every player, those who participated and those who stayed in the stands.”
Originally a defensive midfielder, Roberto struggled to find a place in Barca’s first team for years. Always behind Sergio Busquets in the pecking order, he made only one league start in the 2013/14 campaign and four the following season.
Luis Enrique began experimenting with him as a right back in the summer of 2015 due to an injury to Dani Alves and the departure of Martin Montoya, who could not be replaced due to the club’s transfer ban for signing underage players.
Roberto excelled in his new-found role last season, leading Barca to decide against buying a replacement right back in the summer after the departure of mainstay Alves to Juventus.
The merits of that decision were questioned when Roberto’s limitations in his new position were exposed by top opponents such as Manchester City, who beat Barca 3-1 and especially in the 4-0 drubbing by PSG at the Parc des Princes.
Luis Enrique stuck by him, however, deploying Roberto as a floating full back in a 3-4-3 formation he began using after the defeat to PSG. The defender was left out of Wednesday’s starting line-up but called on with 14 minutes left.
At that point Barca needed three goals to progress after Edinson Cavani had struck for PSG, but a free-kick and penalty from Neymar inside three minutes set up a thrilling finale, allowing Roberto to send the Nou Camp into ecstasy.
“I hit the ball with everything I had and I’m very happy,” Roberto said. “It was very difficult after Cavani’s goal as we needed three but everyone worked so hard.
“If Barcelona have demonstrated anything tonight, it’s that we are made for nights like this.”
(Editing by Catherine Evans)