Barcelona completed the unlikeliest comeback in UEFA Champions League history by beating Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in March 2017. The Catalans lost in Paris, 4-0, and looked doomed. They looked even more doomed when Edinson Cavani scored an away goal at Camp Nou in the second half. And they were definitely done when, with 3 minutes left in normal time, they still needed three goals.
And yet, somehow, Barcelona did it.
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona is probably a higher quality than the version we have today, but let’s not forget that Arda Turan and André Gomes were on the pitch when Sergi Roberto (who had come on for Rafinha) scored the last-gasp winner. It wasn’t necessarily a vintage side, either.
The mental aspect is huge in these games, and can even supersede questions of quality. However, a large part of that was the home crowd. Barcelona has, for a long time, done a lot better at home than away in Europe, by massive margins.
But while the crowd at Camp Nou overawed Paris and inspired Barcelona to that famous comeback, this game will take place in France and without a crowd at all. It’s possible that having no crowd hurt the blaugrana at the Camp Nou, leading to an uncharacteristic loss on home soil. But regardless, at this point, it helps that the stadium will be empty.
These past few days have been perhaps Barcelona’s best in a very long time. It started when Barça defeated Sevilla 2-0 in the league, cementing their good run of form in La Liga. They then completed one of their pending unlikely comebacks, with a 3-0 triumph against Sevilla after losing the first leg 2-0 in the Copa del Rey. Barcelona won their next encounter, 2-0 against Osasuna with Lionel Messi supplying two assists, Jordi Alba keeping up his scoring form, and Ilaix Moriba scoring his first ever senior goal.
Former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested, and in his place, Joan Laporta was elected. Laporta was president when Barcelona’s dynasty first came to fruition at the beginning of the past decade. Whether he will replicate that magic remains to be seen, but at the very least, it is another lift in morale to hope for the future right now. And last but not least, Real Madrid drew with league leaders Atlético Madrid 1-1, giving Barcelona yet more hope that perhaps they could win the league after all.
Ronald Koeman has found a formation, a 3-5-2 that is flexible and can morph into a 4-3-3 with Sergiño Dest pushing up on the right. But the question for the manager is: does he persist with it? The first impulse is to not tinker with something that is working, but there are reasons to think perhaps the team should change it up once more.
With Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araujo out, Barcelona don’t have much of a choice if they want to field three centerbacks. Óscar Mingueza, Clément Lenglet, and Samuel Umtiti would have to start, unless Koeman wants to move someone out of position.
Furthermore, one of Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembélé will have to sit on the bench, which limits Barcelona’s offensive output. The truth is, they need to get at least four goals if they want to advance. Griezmann is the team’s #2 assister and #2 scorer behind Messi, and while Dembélé can have bad games, he is having great ones lately, and can engineer goals and assists out of nowhere that Barcelona will desperately need.
Being short on centerbacks and needing to score no matter what, I suspect Koeman will go with a 4-3-3, or at least, a more attacking lineup from the start.
How do you approach this game? Well, the key is to attack, attack, and never let up. A spout of pressure from kick-off can do wonders for a team’s confidence if they can bag an early goal, and can rattle the other team. If you go into the half at 0-0, belief will drop a lot, so getting at least one goal on the board before the half will be crucial.
We will see whether PSG are just a class above and perhaps whether they can swat this young Barcelona away. Certainly it seems unlikely that this frail defense, without its best two defenders, can keep Kylian Mbappé et al at bay, even with Neymar missing.
Still, with being the away side, Barcelona can basically afford to concede a goal so long as it means they’re freer on the attacking side. One goal for PSG wouldn’t change the Catalans’ objective of getting four goals, although it would rule out winning the tie in 90 minutes.
There’s an argument that Barcelona’s real objective here shouldn’t be to advance, but simply to compete. This is a team in transition that is building up to something, not one that is expected by most to truly compete for the Champions League trophy this year. A small win, or even to some extent a draw, would be seen positively by most fans, given how dire the situation has seemed lately. Of course, this is a hungry team and it doesn’t hurt to dream, but that’s something that will be kept in mind when evaluating this game later.