By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Six weeks after taking over at Paris St Germain, coach Mauricio Pochettino laid down a marker at the Ligue 1 club by masterminding a resounding 4-1 win at Barcelona in their Champions League last-16 first leg on Tuesday.
Four years after they were knocked out at the same stage by Barca with a 6-1 defeat at the Camp Nou following a 4-0 victory in Paris, the team also showed mental strength, staying in the game after falling 1-0 down to a Lionel Messi penalty.
With Neymar and Angel Di Maria both ruled out injured, Pochettino, who led Tottenham Hotspur to the final in 2019, made a clever choice by positioning Marco Verratti high up on the pitch, close to the attacking trio of Kylian Mbappe, Moise Kean and Mauro Icardi.
The Italy player had been used as a central midfielder by all previous coaches and while he was extremely efficient in that defensive role, playing higher up allowed him to display his attacking brilliance.
Verratti managed 57 forward passes, and a superb deflection for Kylian Mbappe's equaliser in the first half.
'Il Gufetto' (the little owl) still defended smartly, thwarting a combination move between Antoine Griezmann and Messi that could have led to another Barca goal.
"Pochettino has changed our style of play, we are now more compact. He gave us a team spirit," Italian Kean, who scored PSG's third, told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Pochettino sprung a small surprise by fielding Kean instead of Pablo Sarabia, who had been previous coach Thomas Tuchel's preference.
With the return leg on March 10 in mind, the Argentine coach also perfectly managed his replacements.
Verratti, who would have been suspended for the second leg had he picked a yellow card, was substituted for Julian Draxler in the 73rd minute as PSG were leading 3-1 and the Italian looking close to being booked.
It was Draxler who provided Mbappe with the assist for the France striker's third goal of a memorable night.
Although all 79 teams who won a first leg 4-1 away in a European Cup have qualified for the next round since the 1970-71 season, PSG know too well they are not yet safely through to the quarter-finals.
"We wanted to come here to win. That's what we did, but we've actually won nothing yet," said Mbappe, who scored his first goals in two years in a Champions League knockout tie.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)