FC Barcelona return to UEFA Champions League action tomorrow when they travel to the French capital to take on Ligue Un champions, Paris Saint-Germain in the first-leg of their hotly-anticipated Round of 16 clash. Undoubtedly this tie is one of the picks of the round; alongside Arsenal’s quest for revenge against Bayern Munich, it is also one of the most familiar ties of the round as it will represent the ninth and tenth matches that these two clubs have played against one another in the past four years.
Overall, the Blaugrana’s record is an impressive one; only once have they lost against PSG in the past four years and that in itself was an inconsequential group game in Luis Enrique’s treble-winning season. Barcelona still went on to top the group and after dispatching the French side once again in the quarter-finals, the Blaugrana continued unopposed to the trophy.
For all those comparing the omens of this roller-coaster campaign to the memorable 2014-15 season, this tie is perhaps another to add to the list. Despite their strong form and a star-studded squad, PSG simply didn’t possess the extra gear that Barcelona had at their disposal in the knockout stages and the end result was a comprehensive win for Enrique’s side. The first-leg, also contested in Paris turned into a rout as Neymar’s opener was followed by a second-half brace from Luis Suarez to all but send Barça into the semi-finals.
Since that tie, Paris Saint-Germain have hired a new manager in Unai Emery, and of course, they have splashed the cash to enhance their squad as well. In January alone, PSG broke the bank to make two more expensive signings, procuring Julian Draxler from Wolfsburg and signing promising Portuguese winger Goncalo Guedes from Benfica but in spite of their tendency to flash the cash, PSG aren’t enjoying one of their best seasons in recent memory.
The departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic hasn’t had much impact on their goalscoring, but it has affected their results as the reigning champions sit three points adrift of league leaders, AS Monaco. To put it simply, PSG have underperformed and that is never more apparent than in the biggest games.
On their travels to Cote d’Azur this season, PSG were comprehensively defeated by Monaco’s superior discipline in a 3-1 loss, nor could they pick up a win away from home in the group stage against Arsenal. However, the bigger concern for Unai Emery – or perhaps the Qatari Sports Investment group – is that PSG have repeatedly been unable to get the job done at home at the Parc des Princes.
Saint-Etienne, historically one of the better sides in France, visited early in the season and PSG could only manage a draw. Marseille, another one of Ligue Un’s better sides, went a month later and also claimed a share of the points. Third-place Nice managed the same in December and just a fortnight ago, the leaders Monaco also held PSG to a draw. Flip to the UEFA Champions League and PSG couldn’t capitalise on home advantage against Arsenal or even Ludogorets.
There can be no doubting that the PSG squad possesses some world-class talent and collectively, they have a squad that is capable of progressing a long way in this competition.
The question is: when are PSG going to deliver on all this promise, all this hype and this expectation and actually achieve something, anything of note to earn the respect they so desperately crave?
In the five years since the Qatari Sports Investment group, spearheaded by Nasser Al-Khelaifi, took charge and began their spending spree, PSG are arguably yet to register a single elimination of note in this competition. You could take that one step further and argue that they have maybe only won a single knockout match of note in that timeframe, the 3-1 home win over Chelsea in 2014, but even that ended in elimination.
Up against what critics are labelling the worst side in the Luis Enrique era at FC Barcelona, this is the time for PSG to prove the world wrong and to announce their arrival as a true member of the European elite. Indeed, in typically pessimistic fashion there are sections of Barça social media that are playing up the threat of Unai Emery’s side and writing off the Blaugrana’s chances.
Yet, to this Culé (and your mileage may vary), I don’t see what all the fuss is about. For all the talent and all the money, all I see in the French capital at this particular point in time is a collection of great players. I don’t see a cohesive, fully functional team like I see in Monaco, in Madrid or in Munich; I see a great manager, but I don’t see a unique, identifiable philosophy. I see a club that feels it deserves a title, but not one that knows how titles must be earned the hard way, a fact of which this Barcelona squad is so acutely aware.
I simply see our first hurdle on the way to bigger, and better things.
I would be remiss to start this section without wishing the very best to Aleix Vidal; the Catalan full-back was injured in devastating fashion in the weekend’s demolition of Deportivo Alaves and he will now miss the remainder of the season with a broken ankle. We all wish Aleix a speedy recovery and it would be great if the squad could dedicate a victory to him tomorrow as he starts the long road to recovery.
Aside from the absence of Vidal, Luis Enrique will also be without Javier Mascherano and Arda Turan – both of whom are expected back relatively soon – but he is able to welcome back Rafinha Alcantara and Gerard Pique who missed the win over Alaves.
As such, there’s an argument that Enrique will have his strongest starting line-up at his disposal tomorrow, and it’s likely that this will be the team that starts at the Parc des Princes. Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal and in recent matches he has made a string of key saves to either help his side keep a clean sheet, or in some cases against Atletico Madrid, progress to the final of the Copa del Rey. The German shot-stopper is impressive in one-on-one scenarios and against a striker as simultaneously prolific and inconsistent as Edinson Cavani, that trait could prove vital over the next 180 minutes of football.
In defense, Sergi Roberto is now our only real option at right-back and for now, there is no reason to suspect that Luis Enrique is preparing to experiment either with the rest of the squad or with a three-man backline. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is there much reason to suggest he should. While it seems trendy to criticise Sergi Roberto for his shortcomings at right-back, he has hardly been the player to cost us in the big matches this season.
Was it his fault that we conceded in the final minutes of El Clasico? When we drew with Atletico Madrid earlier in the season? He’s typically been solid and dependable and while he isn’t as good as Dani Alves, he’s more than good enough and has demonstrated enough to earn the benefit of the doubt for a fixture like this.
Plus, the central defensive pairing of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti may be relatively new, but there are signs that it could be one of the best in recent memory. Pique continues to get better with age and Samuel Umtiti has been nothing short of a revelation since his arrival from Olympique Lyonnais. The natural balance he brings to the defense as a left-footer is crucial, while his speed, power and elegance on the ball single him out as a unique talent. PSG boast a lot of attacking talent, but will they prove to be match for Pique and Umtiti?
At left-back, Jordi Alba is being rested more regularly and the hope for Luis Enrique has to be that this rest translates into better performances in the important games. At his best, Alba adds another dimension to the Blaugrana attack, while his speed and recovery ability have bailed the defense out on countless occasions. With Andres Iniesta and Neymar to accompany him on the left-side, Barcelona have one of the most potent left-sides in Europe and that could prove decisive against the relative inexperience of Thomas Meunier.
In midfield, the return of Sergio Busquets will provide a calming effect, improving Barcelona’s ability to retain possession and dictate their unique style upon the match. With Marco Verratti in the opposing midfield, Barcelona will face a player who could conceivably slot into their own philosophy, but the key to this battle is unlikely to be Busquets vs Verratti; rather it will be the Barcelona midfield against the combativeness of Matuidi and Rabiot, who face a tall order to fill in for Krychowiak and Motta.
The advantage is clearly with the Blaugrana; Ivan Rakitic is slowly getting back to his best while the last time that Andres Iniesta played at the Parc des Princes, he left an entire team in his wake, creating magic along the way. If PSG are to stand any chance, they will need to follow the blueprint that others have shown to be effective; press the defence, cut off the passing lanes and starve the midfield of the ball. Whether they can achieve that without so many key players remains to be seen.
And speaking of key absentees, PSG must attempt to defend the MSN triumvirate without Thiago Silva – a reality that Unai Emery is sure to be having nightmares about tonight. Either Serge Aurier moves into the heart of defense and plays his first meaningful minutes there since 2013/14 when he played for Toulouse, or young Presnel Kimpembe is handed his first taste of UEFA Champions League action.
When you consider that Luis Suarez has scored in eight of his last nine appearances, Neymar has scored or created a goal on average every 48 minutes in this season’s Champions League and Lionel Messi… well, where to begin. He’s grabbed himself 10 goals in five UCL appearances this season and he has 24 goals in 24 games since returning from injury in October. That’s without mentioning how many chances he’s created and you know, the idea that he’s the best player of this or any generation.
Unai Emery will enter tomorrow’s match without the services of his captain, and arguably the best defender in the world, Thiago Silva, who has been ruled out through injury. Also missing are Grzegorz Krychowiak, who Barcelona fans will remember well from his impressive stint at Sevilla, and Thiago Motta who of course used to don the famous Blaugrana shirt. The former continues his road to recovery, while Motta perhaps unsurprisingly misses out through suspension.
This leaves the hosts a little light on options in holding midfield; Krychowiak is a combative presence that will be sorely missed while Motta has always been able to disrupt the Barcelona style. Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti are likely to anchor the midfield in their absence, but question marks remain over the pairing’s ability to stop the likes of Iniesta and Busquets from taking over the midfield.
The inclusion of Julian Draxler meanwhile in the PSG squad for the knockout stages meant that Goncalo Guedes would be cup-tied, as rules dictate that only one player from the group stage of another team can join the squad. Whether the German will start however remains to be seen; Emery could push Angel di Maria back into midfield similar to the move that Carlo Ancelotti made while he was Real Madrid coach, but he may opt for the stability of Adrien Rabiot, leaving Draxler and Di Maria to fight it out for a place in attack alongside Lucas Moura and Cavani.
FC Barcelona 2-0 Paris Saint-Germain – 21st April 2015 – UEFA Champions League
A brace from Neymar sent the Blaugrana cruising through, putting the icing on the cake after a comprehensive 3-1 win in the first-leg at the Parc des Princes.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
PSG (4-3-3): Trapp; Meunier, Kipembe, Marquinhos, Kurzawa; Verratti, Matuidi, Rabiot; Lucas, Cavani, di Maria
2015 all over again; 3-1 to the visitors.