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Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas and Alexis: The Men to Supplant Lionel Messi vs PSG?

With Lionel Messi certainly limited if not ruled out in the return leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Cesc Fabregas will in all likelihood take his place in the center of Barca's attack. After his first career hat-trick on Saturday, can the Spanish international deliver the goods again? The oft-criticized Alexis Sanchez, may be called upon to score as well. But has the Chilean, coming off a brace, exorcised his demons in front of goal?

David Ramos

In four years under Pep Guardiola, only once did a player not named Lionel Messi net a hat-trick for FC Barcelona. Seydou Keita scored three in 2009, but since then, no player had replicated that feat besides Messi, who had done it 20 times.

None, that is, until Cesc Fabregas scored his first career hat-trick against Mallorca in the weekend. Messi missed out through injury for the first time in what seems like forever, so the onus was on Fabregas, who had been in a rough patch of form lately, to give the team scoring punch from the center-forward position.

He certainly did the job, but can he replicate it in the Champions League meeting against Paris Saint-Germain? Messi has not been ruled out for the clash but in all likelihood will be limited by the injury. The Argentine superstar may not even start the match.

In the first leg, Fabregas came on at halftime for the injured Messi and did play a clever backheel for Alexis Sanchez to run onto. Alexis was fouled and drew a penalty, which Xavi converted.

Speaking of Alexis, the Chilean, who has been criticized for being indecisive in front of goal, got a brace and two assists against Mallorca. Despite his struggles, his tally for the current half of the season is six goals, a vast improvement over the single goal he got before the winter break.

In isolation, it's tempting to say that Fabregas and Alexis are in form since Messi's injury. After all, they directly combined for the second goal against PSG and accounted for the opening four goals against Mallorca, with the fifth goal being the work of Andres Iniesta passing to Fabregas.

However, inconsistency has plagued the duo for a while now, too often disappointing despite patches of brilliance. Alexis's bipolar season so far (one goal in the opening half, six since) is the reverse of Fabregas's disappearing act last season (14 goals in the first half, two in the second).

Despite the goals, Fabregas is not necessarily a born forward. "My natural position is midfield," Fabregas reflected. In fact, he insisted that even though he had a career-best tally in front of goal, he's had better games.

Fabregas will most likely have to play center-forward again, with Alexis likely getting time on the wing. It's one thing doing it against bottom-feeders like Mallorca, quite another to do it against the expensively-assembled PSG in a European knockout match.

Barcelona will be hoping Fabregas can have one of those "complete" games against PSG. Alexis needs to keep up his hard work in defending and passing, but he simply cannot continue with the worrying trend of missing easy chances.

The Catalans come into the second leg having drawn the first leg 2-2 in Paris, but with a precarious situation in defense, it's highly likely Barca will need goals to progress.

With Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol out injured, the only fit center-backs are Gerard Pique and youngster Marc Bartra. Eric Abidal came back in moving fashion after missing more than a year fighting cancer, but it's probably unfair to expect him to be physically ready for 90 minutes of Champions League football.

With Messi not 100% and the defense in peril, Barca's chances may rest on an inspired game from the duo. That's a reality that's bound to fray some nerves.

For more coverage of tonight's UEFA Champions League clash, be sure to check out our Barcelona vs PSG Storystream

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