And then there were eight. Despite falling 2-0 behind to AC Milan in the Round of 16, FC Barcelona produced one of the greatest-ever European comebacks to book their place in the quarter-finals of the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League. All that stands between the Blaugrana and a spot in the final four is Paris Saint-Germain – who have reached the quarter-finals for just the second time in their 43 year history. PSG may be stacked with talent; and they are led by one of Europe’s most successful coaches, but they enter the two-legged tie as underdogs in desperate need of a win in tomorrow’s first-leg at the Parc des Princes. Should Ancelotti’s side suffer defeat...well, Barcelona are undefeated in the last five years of Champions League knockout fixtures at the Camp Nou...
Carles Puyol is still sidelined after he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last month, and he is joined on the sidelines by Pedro Rodriguez (who is both injured and suspended for tomorrow’s fixture) and Adriano Correia. However, influential midfielder Xavi Hernández has recovered from his latest injury set-back to be named in the squad along with Jordi Alba, who missed Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo through injury. Given that Eric Abidal has fully recovered following his liver transplant, Barcelona could have a fully fit squad at their disposal within the next month – just in time for a potential UEFA Champions League semi-final, provided they defeat Paris Saint-Germain.
Victor Valdés will return to take his rightful place in goal tomorrow; even if he has one more match to serve on his four-game La Liga suspension, the Catalan remains Barcelona’s undisputed first-choice between the sticks. Exceptional in Spain’s 1-0 win over France, Valdés will be keen to replicate not only last week’s international performance, but also what will inevitably go down as the performance of his career – that infamous night in Paris where his heroics inspired the Blaugrana to their second European Cup. A clean sheet wouldn’t necessarily book Barcelona’s place in the next round, nor would it even secure victory; but if Valdés is on form, you better believe that Barça stand a better chance of securing a favourable result.
In defense, Dani Alves will start at right-back – against the very side that was rumoured to be interested in securing his services this past summer. Alves is yet to register an assist in this season’s Champions League, but he does have a goal to his name – more than we can say of Pedro for instance – and has contributed some excellent defensive play throughout the previous rounds. The Brazilian is likely to be joined in defense by Gerard Piqué, and Javier Mascherano, who has started six of Barcelona’s eight Champions League matches so far this season – is it a coincidence that Barça lost against Milan without Mascherano in the starting XI? Jordi Alba may have only just returned from injury, but should start ahead of Martin Montoya at left-back.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, with Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta likely to start ahead of the Catalan Player of the Year in the Barcelona midfield. Between the three of them, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets average a combined 356 passes per UEFA Champions League match at an average success rate of 93.2%; when the trio start together in midfield, Barcelona seldom lose. In the result that Tito opts to keep Xavi on the bench, expect to see Cesc Fàbregas start ahead of Thiago Alcântara; but if the previous round taught us anything, it’s that Xavi will start regardless of injury.
Moving onto the attack, Lionel Messi will obviously start, and David Villa is almost certain to join the Argentine in attack despite his (relatively) poor record in this season’s Champions League; but who will join Messi and Villa in the Barça attack? Cristian Tello staked his claim for a starting place with a well-taken goal against Celta Vigo, but he is likely to face stiff competition from the hard-working Chilean, Alexis Sánchez – and maybe even Gerard Deulofeu. Well, maybe not Deulofeu; but even with Pedro injured/suspended, neither Tello nor Sánchez are guaranteed a place in the starting XI. Personally, I would go for Sánchez – we are looking for a right-winger after all – but I can see why Tito might be tempted to start Tello...
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is available for selection after UEFA reduced his two-match suspension upon appeal, but fear not, Ibra has never emerged victorious against the Blaugrana. He may have contributed to our demise back in 2010 with a string of lazy performances, but Zlatan (or Thiago Silva for that matter) has never actually beaten Barcelona – suffering two defeats in three matches. On the other hand, Paris Saint-Germain are unbeaten in their last 23 European home fixtures and have lost just twice all season at the Parc des Princes. Sure, they’ve never faced a team quite as dangerous as Barcelona, but it’s still an impressive record. Thiago Motta has been left, but aside from that, Ancelotti has a full-strength squad at his disposal.
FC Barcelona 1-0 Paris Saint-Germain – 14th May 1997 – UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup
While the two sides met in a pre-season friendly back in August, the last competitive meeting between the two sides came way back in 1997. A Barcelona side featuring the likes of Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Lui$ Figo emerged victorious courtesy of a well-taken penalty from Ronaldo.
The last Barcelona match that Stark officiated ended in the Blaugrana’s favour – as a red-card for Pepe allowed Barça to take a 2-0 lead to the Camp Nou in their 2011 UEFA Champions League semi-final clash with arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Villa
PSG (4-2-3-1): Sirigu; Jallet, Thiago Silva, Alex, Maxwell; Matuidi, Verratti; Lucas, Pastore, Lavezzi; Ibrahimovic
Barcelona don’t tend to travel particularly well in the Champions League, and PSG are exceptionally strong at home; on paper, this one appears to be headed for a first-leg draw, but I can see the Blaugrana sneaking it – especially with Tito Vilanova back on the sidelines. 2-1 Barcelona.