The pressure is on; FC Barcelona will take to the field in Paris at the Parc des Princes where they will be expected to put one foot in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals with a victory over short-handed Ligue Un champions, Paris Saint-Germain. Having topped Group F ahead of the Parisians to book their place in the Round of 16, Barça consolidated their position as one of the front-runners to contest for glory in Berlin in June, a position that was further solidified with their thoroughly impressive dismantling of English Premier League champions, Manchester City in the previous round.
However, while PSG are arguably less dangerous and far less consistent than they were under the guidance of current Real Madrid head coach, Carlo Ancelotti, they continue to make progress in their bid for European supremacy. While they were ultimately eliminated by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea last season, Laurent Blanc’s side achieved vengeance in the Round of 16, claiming a shock victory on away goals after a tense second-leg at Stamford Bridge.
With the Special One at the helm, Chelsea were also tipped as one of the favourites for this year’s competition; so PSG’s triumph is proof-positive of their own European pedigree. At least, on paper.
The reality however is that Chelsea’s reputation precedes them and PSG’s eventual victory wasn’t as much of a surprise as many made out – elimination was a suitable and predictable reward for their two mediocre performances. Sure, PSG still had to finish the job and gain a result in the face of adversity after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s somewhat unjust dismissal, but let’s not give them too much credit either – Chelsea: the 2015 edition are a pale imitation of the Chelsea side we saw in the prior calendar year.
And I can hear you mentioning it now: "but Arron, can’t we say the same about Manchester City?" and of course, you would be right. The reigning English champions are on an even steeper decline so perhaps we can’t read too much into our performances against them either – but those results were just two examples of a greater pattern: Barcelona’s undoubted ascension back to the top of world football.
No team in the top five European leagues have lost fewer matches than the Blaugrana in 2015, nor has any single one team scored more goals. Barça lead the way in terms of wins as well; just about every statistical category you can think of, Barcelona are bound to be at, or very near to the top thus far in 2015.
Our draw against Sevilla on Saturday was the first time we had dropped points since February 21st, and marked only the third instance that we had failed to win in 2015. That’s a total of 23 matches played at an 87% win rate, six of which were played against reigning domestic or European/World champions and a further four of which were played against sides in the top six. Our record in those ten fixtures interestingly is nine wins and a single draw – undefeated, securing victories at a 90% clip, averaging 2.3 goals a game.
I know that pessimism and self-deprecation have been the order of the day since Pep Guardiola’s departure way back in 2012, but how can you not be pleased with FC Barcelona under Luis Enrique? Still disagree? Find me a team that’s better than FC Barcelona and just try to make a convincing argument – it’s simply not possible.
We beat Real Madrid, and they currently trail us in the La Liga title race. Just this year alone, we’ve beaten Atletico Madrid three times. Paris Saint-Germain might be a good side, but "good" isn’t enough to challenge this Barcelona outfit, and by that I mean really put them under pressure. On any given night, anything is possible but over a two-legged affair, Barça have every reason to be confident that their superiority will eventually shine through.
After all, this is a Paris Saint-Germain outfit that lacks a ruthless touch, that overwhelming quality that is required to establish oneself at this level. They don’t lose an awful lot but equally, they often struggle to finish off their rivals, particularly against higher calibre opposition.
The last round is a perfect example: PSG "defeated" Chelsea without ever actually winning either match. They’ve played four times against their two closest rivals in the league this season and are yet to win a single match.
This decidedly average record in the biggest matches in reflected in the Ligue Un title race; PSG hold a narrow one-point lead over Olympique Lyonnais, in spite of the fact that their closest challengers operate with a budget estimated to be roughly a quarter of the size of the nouveau-riche Parisians.
While their inability to win these matches might not ultimately matter in the French title race, it doesn’t exactly indicate that PSG are even remotely capable of defeating Barcelona.
Famous last words, right?
We know the drill; we’ve been here many times before and we know exactly what to expect: Barcelona are about to play a big game, the head coach names the 18 best players to the squad and typically follows it up by selecting the "Gala XI" – you know the one I’m talking about. This is the side that would start if the UEFA Champions League final was tomorrow; this is the side that would start El Clasico – while this might vary from manager to manager depending on playing styles, this is ultimately the line-up that will define a coach’s tenure at the club.
In eras gone by, Cruyff had his Dream Team; the 2008/09 side boasted the usual suspects supplemented by a frontline of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. This team formed the spine of the side that dominated in 2010/11, where the only real changes were in that attack as Pedro and David Villa replaced the departed Henry and Eto’o. Sometimes, these teams have that "wow factor" – it’s usually clear to see when it is and isn’t apparent.
I mean, are we really surprised that we didn’t challenge for glory in the past few years when our best team often featured either Cesc Fabregas and/or Andres Iniesta in their secondary positions, or when our Gala XI included Jose Manuel Pinto at the business end of last season? Of course, I mean no disrespect to those players – but for these Gala XIs to really excel and challenge for glory on multiple fronts they need to be flawless.
The midfield and defense requires balance. There needs to be the right sprinkling of individual talent, a helpful dose of leadership and a whole truckload of consistency across the board. It may be early doors, but the signs are positive for Lucho’s first-ever Gala XI.
In goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo are largely interchangeable. In spite of his error at the weekend, I firmly believe that Bravo represents the more consistent and reliable option of the two. His leadership qualities are important, albeit not crucial to this side’s success as the younger, more inexperience ter Stegen has also thrived when he has taken up residency between the sticks for the Blaugrana. So, even if ter Stegen is more likely to give me a heart-attack, he is also more likely to make me jump out of my seat in amazement and that’s the kind of quality that helped us win our last few UEFA Champions League titles.
The defense has a few weaknesses, but by and large it is the best and most balanced backline we have seen since the days of Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal. Dani Alves polarises opinion and I’ve spent many-a preview attempting to give my two cents – but thankfully suspension means that I can spare you all another Alves love-in. In his place, Martin Montoya will start at right-back and while he isn’t a member of the usual Gala XI, he’s an entirely inoffensive substitute.
While Dani Alves lives, and increasingly dies by the sword, Martin Montoya takes a more measured, calculated approach to just about every aspect of the match. There aren’t as many attempts on goal from 30 yards, nor are there too many last-ditch sliding challenges and overall, his rather predictable style means that he hasn’t forged as much of an understanding with Lionel Messi – but it does mean that he rarely puts a foot wrong.
That solid, steady-Eddie approach should serve us well tomorrow; at least, it’s hard to see Montoya’s inclusion costing us the game – assuming that Lucho opts for that straight-forward substitute.
Working off that assumption for a little longer, our marquee central defensive pairing has evolved this season, much to the surprise of many as Javier Mascherano’s place has been taken by the unfashionable Frenchman, Jeremy Mathieu.
His signing this past summer prompted some criticism from a selection of Cules who looked at Mathieu’s age and drew assumptions from his lack of international experience, leaping to the premature conclusion that he simply wasn’t Barcelona material. In some respects, I shared that sentiment – not quite to the "he doesn’t belong here" extent, but rather I saw Mathieu as a useful player, especially in La Liga, although I never thought he would force his way into our strongest line-up.
Yet, here we are – Mathieu has earned his place and recently built a reputation as a big-game player, scoring a couple of crucial goals from defense. As a left-footer, Mathieu provides a balance to the Barcelona backline unseen since the days of Gabriel Milito and really, it’s difficult to overstate the positives that this can bring. Certainly, it helps us keep our shape a little better and we are more comfortable in possession whilst under-pressure in our own defensive third.
How long Mathieu can retain that place is debatable, particularly given the rise and rise of Marc Bartra, but for now, he’s going to get the call and to date, he hasn’t let Luis Enrique down. If he scores again tomorrow though, I think we might just have a new hero.
At left-back, Jordi Alba is obviously very different to our last great left-sided full-back, Eric Abidal so it would be unfair to draw comparisons, but Alba isn’t dissimilar to one of our previous icons, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, the flying Dutchman who played such an integral, ever-present role in our 2006 UEFA Champions League triumph. Certainly, both Gio and Alba are renowned for their offensive contributions, and both have a knack for scoring goals at opportune times, while both also leave some gaps defensively.
Perhaps for that reason, Alba was a noticeable omission from the side that defeated Paris Saint-Germain back in December; on that night, Enrique opted for an ambitious 3-4-3 in a gamble ultimately won us the match. Will he be tempted to resurrect that tactical creation for our trip to Paris? It’s a possibility, but one that I think he may avoid, or leave in reserve for the return-leg, if required.
Getting back to the idea of our Gala XI, it seems strange to say, but the resurgence of our midfield really has been one of the key factors behind our climb back to the pinnacle of La Liga. I know, how can a team that boasts the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets have struggled in midfield – but it’s true, and most Cules would agree.
Whether it was age that caught up with our players, or the world catching up to us, the previous style simply wasn’t as dominant as it had been. Pep Guardiola failed to find an answer to our problems and when faced with the realisation that he couldn’t solve the issues, he left. There’s proof in his style at Bayern, as he continues to emphasise a similar philosophy to that which he pioneered during his spell in Catalunya. Whether that has worked to Bayern’s benefit – the jury is still out.
Tito Vilanova seemed as though he had some answers, or at least some potential solutions but before he could implement them, he was cruelly struck down by illness and as we approach the anniversary of his tragic, sudden passing, one must wonder what might have been…and whether Luis Enrique’s reign, while different in terms of his handling of the media and personality, is a continuation to what we might have seen under Tito.
Alas, Gerardo Martino obviously didn’t get it and failed to continue Tito’s legacy – instead, he went in the opposite direction and probably accentuated our troubles. Whether it was Enrique directly, or the higher management at the club, Barcelona made some difficult, risky decisions this past summer. Cesc Fabregas was discarded, Xavi has been all but benched and we’ve seen Enrique blood some new talent.
Some of it was established elsewhere like Ivan Rakitic, and others are home-grown like Rafinha Alcantara; each has been as important as the other in Enrique’s grand plan. The end result? A Barcelona midfield that is as dominant as ever in the possession stakes, but one that is more defensively responsible, more industrious and just different to what we’ve seen before. Some teams had gotten used to the Barça carousel of Xavi and Iniesta. Not many have found the answer to Rakitic, or even to Rafinha.
And hence, Barcelona has been slowly improving with each passing week as they grow increasingly accustomed to this new style and their new strengths. Sergio Busquets has more cover and therefore has been left isolated a lot less this season. As a consequence, he has done a better job defensively and has more time to focus on his offensive responsibilities, helping things tick over where Xavi would have previously.
Ivan Rakitic has been nothing short of God-like at times; he single-handedly dominated the Manchester City midfield in the previous round, absolutely making a mockery of world-class players in the first-leg. And then along came the supposedly invincible Yaya Toure, who was supposed to serve as the saviour and Rakitic had him in his back pocket as well. Heck, not a single player on the field could deal with him, even the heroic Joe Hart who fell victim to an astute chip from the Croatian.
Rakitic is a player for the big games and he will start tomorrow; let’s see if he can conjure up some more magic, or whether his midfield partner might come to the fore instead. Indeed, Andres Iniesta is probably due one of his typical masterclasses after what some have coined an underwhelming season to date. Although as we’ve previously mentioned on the site, that’s more as a consequence of his evolving role in the side; no longer is Iniesta responsible for making the final pass.
That responsibility is increasingly falling to Lionel Messi and really Messi alone; while Barca’s shift to a more reactive, counter-attacking style leaves Iniesta further from goal – how can he make an assist if he is the first man making a pass some 70 or 80 yards from goal? This pass is perhaps as crucial as an assist as Iniesta is responsible for essentially creating the counter in the first place, but earns fewer plaudits.
Although, if you are a believer that Iniesta might not be as effective as he once was, then could Luis Enrique opt for Xavi? With Rakitic in support, Xavi would be liberated to perform a more offensive role, orientated around his ability to provide that final pass. His quality delivery has made the difference for us in recent matches, reminding everyone of his importance and of the role he can still play as captain of this club.
I don’t want to see Iniesta benched, but I wouldn’t be averse to seeing Xavi start at all, even at his expense.
And then we get to the frontline – the pièce de résistance. When we refer to standout Barcelona teams, we always list the forwards first. We had the Eto’o/Henry/Messi trident that I mentioned in 2009. "MVP" in 2011; going further back, we had Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Giuly/Messi in 2006.
Now though, there is a real feeling that we possess an attacking triumvirate that surpasses them all. A trio of such quality that perhaps the footballing world has never quite seen anything like it either; Lionel Messi in the peak of his career and perhaps still improving, Luis Suarez hungry for titles and in his absolute prime with a sensational and world-class talent in Neymar providing support. These are three players that are all capable of scoring in each of 40 goals a season; perhaps Eto’o, Henry and Messi in 2009 came close, but these guys take that idea and improved upon it tenfold.
Messi alone is probably more dangerous, and his chemistry with Neymar has blossomed this season particularly. It may have taken him a while to find his feet, but Luis Suarez has enhanced the frontline significantly, shouldering some of the burden with his impressive goalscoring record. His brace against City ultimately decided the tie after all, and he won the Clasico a few weeks ago. Heck, he scored the final goal to kill the game off the last time these two sides met.
Then there’s Neymar. His record speaks for itself, but let’s recap anyway for the fun of it. The bigger the game, the bigger the performance. Neymar carried Brazil in the World Cup, scores in most Clasicos and often against Atletico Madrid too. He didn’t score against City, but he has scored multiple times against PSG and who would back against him tomorrow?
The decision to withdraw him from the match against Sevilla was the wrong one from Luis Enrique, but it may have helped Neymar to conserve energy for this one – and given him a little edge that he can use in Paris. When he plays with a bit of anger, a bit of attitude, Neymar is often a lot better. Think how unplayable he was against Atletico Madrid when he thought he had a point to prove – more of that tomorrow and Barça might be halfway to victory. Or another one of those free-kicks. Either or really.
Depleted is probably the best word to describe Paris Saint-Germain’s situation headed into this first-leg, although a lot of it is of their own doing. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marco Verratti and Serge Aurier are all suspended, either for a straight red card as it was in Zlatan’s case or for accumulation of yellow cards. Then, added on top of that, David Luiz is near enough certain to miss out through injury and there are question marks about the fitness of former Barcelona midfielder, Thiago Motta.
Laurent Blanc affirmed today that Motta could feature, but the Brazilian-born midfielder did not train with the rest of the squad today and as such, it would be a surprise to see him from the start tomorrow.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Paris Saint-Germain – 3rd December 2014 – UEFA Champions League
Ibrahimovic gave the visitors the lead against his former club, but Barcelona came charging back and eventually overwhelmed PSG with a sensational performance as the fabled attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar each helped themselves to a goal to secure top spot in Group F.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Montoya, Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
PSG (4-2-3-1): Sirigu; Van der Wiel, Silva, Marquinhos, Maxwell; Matuidi, Cabaye; Lucas, Pastore, Lavezzi; Cavani
Have faith in Barça; 3-1 win.