Champions League Preview : Paris Saint-Germain v Barcelona
The lather-rinse-repeat predictability of Paris Saint-Germain meeting Barcelona in the Champions’ League Round of 16 has surely been greeted with some degree of schadenfreude elsewhere in France. The champions have looked more vulnerable than usual this season, and a galling draw against Ludogorets in the group stage’s last day would seem to be karmic retribution for a botched transfer window and the impression that Unai Emery, despite his past European success, is in over his head. League performances, particularly against the other two teams in the top three, have been similarly uninspiring, with just two points from three matches against Monaco and Nice.
Still, however, PSG have marched to yet another Coupe de la Ligue final, and have ten wins from eleven matches in a run which started with a 5-0 defeat of Lorient just before the winter break. The lone draw, of course, was against Monaco, but there is something to be said for the machine-like consistency that seems to be finally developing around the club. That same eleven-match run has seen the team score 34 goals against just four conceded, and their most recent match, a 3-0 throttling of Bordeaux on Friday, was remarkable for its comprehensive quality. There is the odd caveat to all this, of course; the offside winner against Lille, a mis-firing Rennes failing to take advantage while out-playing the champions for large stretches of their league encounter, etc.
However, one could easily fire back with mitigating circumstances in the opposite direction: Marco Verratti was absent for the draw with Monaco, Alphonse Areola’s catastrophic goalkeeping allowed a negative Lille a chance at a point, the team did well to fight back against Nice at home, etc. The bottom line is that Paris Saint-Germain have recently found their best form of the nascent Emery era, and are (Thiago Silva aside) finally free of any major absences, ready to meet Barcelona on something approaching level terms. The captain’s injury will turn the keys to central defense over to the young duo of Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembé, but despite the two lacking the Brazilian’s vast experience, even this could be looked at as a positive, given their greater mobility vis-a-vis the veteran.
Thiago Motta also misses out, through suspension, but keen observers of the team won’t bat an eyelid at that. While the Italian is experienced in matches of this magnitude, he may not have started had he been available, a testament to the improving Adrien Rabiot, who, along with Marco Verratti, has been one of the team’s most important players this season. The youngster received his first France call-up, and has looked increasingly mature, displaying a much-needed level of directness and composure, becoming perhaps the only player in the team to display a significant level of growth under the tutelage of Emery. Verratti, who had been a doubt before playing an hour against Bordeaux on Friday, will likewise make a difference, as injuries and suspension have meant that he has been unable to take part in either of PSG’s last two eliminations from this competition.
Further forward, the once-indifferent Angel Di Maria has been back to, if not his best, at least a level above the early part of the season. He and Lucas Moura seem to be motivated by the arrival of genuine competition for their places in the form of Julian Draxler, who could even start ahead of one of them this evening, a surprising turn of events but one that has dramatically improved the two wingers’ play since the transfer was finalized at the turn of the year.
Competition has similarly been healthy at right back, where the sometimes-wayward Serge Aurier may find himself benched for the season’s biggest match for the Belgian Thomas Meunier, who has been a model of consistency. A more imposing physical presence and the scorer of some sublime goals, he isn’t quite as direct or adept with the ball at his feet as the Ivorian, but in a tie such as this one, where Paris Saint-Germain aren’t favorites, his more composed approach to defending is an added boon. Even the much-maligned Edinson Cavani seems to be hitting his stride, his well-taken goals against Bordeaux seemingly the ideal tonic for his perceived profligacy.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Barcelona have similarly had a mediocre season by their own standards. Their summer transfers have failed to improve the team’s depth, save Samuel Umtiti, and they have dropped points in more than a few matches in which they’ve not played their first-choice eleven. Injuries to Andres Iniesta, Umtiti and Lionel Messi saw the team stumble to losses to Celta Vigo and Alavés, but, like their opponents, they have a first-choice eleven fit, and are also riding an eleven-match unbeaten streak, including a gritty win in the Copa del Rey semifinals over Atletico Madrid.
They seem to lack the same killer instinct that they had during the earliest days of Luis Enrique’s spell in charge, but have improved dramatically in defense with Umtiti rapidly becoming first-choice alongside Gerard Piqué. The former Lyon man offers greater mobility and is more comfortable with the ball at his feet than either Javier Mascherano or Jérémy Mathieu, more than making up for his relative lack of height. Neymar has had an indifferent start to the season, but his performances have improved since the turn of the year, not unlike Di Maria.
Thus, the two teams have much in common approaching this match. A slightly under-par start to the league campaign still presents ample opportunity for redemption, and progression in the cups has come with improved form in the new year. These common factors, coupled with a relative lack of notable absences, have both the hosts and Barcelona in fighting form, unlike their two previous encounters, when injuries and suspensions had the French side operating at a deficit. There is unlikely to be a decisive result this evening, meaning that perhaps for the first time in the QSI era, PSG are in a good place ahead of a tie against a European giant, something that hasn’t been the case to date.
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Kevin Trapp; Thomas Meunier (or Serge Aurier), Marquinhos, Presnel Kimpembé, Maxwell; Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi; Lucas Moura, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria
Barcelona (4-3-3): Marc-André Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba; Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar
Score Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain 1-1 Barcelona