Champions League Preview : Barcelona v PSG
Few would have thought that Paris Saint-Germain could enter this evening’s visit to the Nou Camp with even a hint of doubt after thrashing Barcelona 4-0 three weeks ago. However, the hosts’ good form, and a pair of uneven outings from the French champions have seen just the smallest bit of uncertainty creep into the minds of some. Whether the players are among that number remains to be seen, but we should be in for a thoroughly entertaining ninety minutes as Barcelona try to claw their way back into the tie, hoping to avoid being eliminated at this stage for the first time since Liverpool put the Catalans out in 2007.
It is true that the visitors did struggle to put away Ligue 2 strugglers Niort (in the Coupe de France) and Nancy in their last two matches, but they were without key players Ángel Di María and Adrien Rabiot for both of those encounters, to say nothing of the state of the pitch at the Stade Gaillard. Rabiot will come back into the side after recovering from an illness, but the Argentine remains a doubt through injury. Lucas Moura certainly constitutes a capable option in reserve, but Unai Emery appears likely to start Di María, perhaps with an eye towards removing him on the hour if the result looks secure.
The only definite absence facing the manager, then, is that of Thiago Motta. Given the veteran didn’t feature in the first leg and was barely missed, with Rabiot sparkling in front of the defense, his loss may not seem like much, but there is the possibility that he could have offered a bit more solidity in midfield, having been in good form in the calendar year. With Rabiot a booking away from missing the next leg, this could have also been an opportunity to shield the French international from a potential suspension in the quarterfinals. Elsewhere, there may be some temptation to allow Maxwell a curtain call at Barcelona, as Layvin Kurzawa continues to manage a groin issue, but the former Monaco man should get the nod, Lorient at the weekend shaping up to be a better opportunity for rotation.
Emery was ebullient in yesterday’s pre-match press conference, averring that PSG would play with the same gusto they had at home, even though a more cautious approach might seemingly be warranted : “Our only thought is to play the way we did in the first leg, without thinking about the result. We need to be ready to do everything: defend, attack, play together, cope when they are dominating, and make them suffer. We need to win our one on ones and on a collective level get the upper hand. That’s why we want to carry on where we left off in Paris.”
If PSG do that, they should have no problem, but it’s not as if Barcelona have sat on their heels in the intervening three weeks. In their recent league fixtures, comprehensive wins over Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo, the team have moved to a back three. This not only eliminates the glaring lack of a natural right back in the absence of the injured Aleix Vidal, but also gives more numerical superiority in midfield. In the first leg, Andres Iniesta’s effectiveness was often limited by having to come deep to collect the ball, but in this formation, with Rakitic and Busquets playing slightly deeper, there will be more freedom for the veteran in attack. Needing goals, this can only be a good thing for Barcelona, as it essentially frees them to play with the all-or-nothing approach that the 4-0 deficit dictates.
While the system seems fairly set in having three at the back, there has been some confusion as to how the team will line up ahead of that. Some have suggested that Rafinha will play on the right side of midfield, some Sergi Roberto. It has also been mooted that Lionel Messi will take a deeper, central role, with Rafinha taking his nominal place wide on the right and Iniesta and Rakitic playing more supplementary roles. The latter system seems a bit outlandish, but Barcelona did line up that way against Atletico Madrid in the league recently, and Messi does tend to drift to some extent no matter his nominal position.
However, there is also the general sentiment that this match represents something of last stand for Barcelona this season, even if the league is still in the balance courtesy of Real Madrid’s recent struggles. Rafinha has been the player whose performances have improved the most, aside from the front three as a result of the switch. That, and how poor Roberto was in the first leg, mean that the young Brazilian on the right side of a four-man midfield makes the best choice, a decision will have the added benefit of the front three keeping their regular position, even if Messi will continue in his usual free role.
At the back, there has been some potential indecision surrounding whether Jordi Alba or Javier Mascherano will join Piqué and Umtiti. The Spaniard will give needed pace in attack, but could leave the hosts caught out if he plays with too much abandon, while Mascherano’s passing would also be missed. Barcelona will, in any event, have more attacking firepower at their disposal, but not conceding seems more of a chore than does scoring four. Paris Saint-Germain have been superb on the counter this season, and if they can score once, the hosts will need an unlikely six goals to progress. The French side have failed to find the net just once in 2017, and that against a Toulouse side resolved to sit deep rather than attack, meaning that a tie-changing goal is more likely to occur that not, making Barcelona’s already difficult task nigh-on-impossible.
FC Barcelona (3-4-3): Marc-André Ter Stegen; Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba (or Javier Mascherano); Rafinha, Ivan Raktitic, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Kevin Trapp; Thomas Meunier, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Maxwell (or Layvin Kurzawa); Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi; Lucas Moura (or Ángel Di María), Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler
Predicted Score: FC Barcelona 3-1 Paris Saint-Germain