Top spot in Group F will be on the line when two of the teams with pretensions to lift the Champions League title in Berlin next May meet at the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Paris Saint-Germain take a one-point advantage to Barcelona and need just a draw to secure what, in theory, will be a kinder draw in the last 16.
The two sides have dominated the group and have long since qualified at the expense of Ajax and Cypriot minnows APOEL. But the French champions’ thrilling 3-2 win over Barcelona in Paris at the end of September means the onus is now on the Spanish giants heading into the final round.
“Our aim is clear -- we want to win and PSG want the same,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said, according to UEFA.com. “They are one of the contenders to win the competition and it'll be a demanding match, defensively speaking, for us. I would prefer to finish first in the group to gain a slight advantage in the next round.”
“PSG are at the same level as the top European clubs, one of the favorites for the trophy. They are already proving what they can do in their league.”
Barcelona go into the decisive clash in fine form, having won their last seven matches in all competitions. Unsurprisingly, crucial to those results has been the performances of Lionel Messi. The Argentine became the top scorer ever in the Champions League when he scored a hat-trick against APOEL two weeks ago, and, incredibly, he has now scored three hat-tricks in his last four matches. On Saturday Barcelona were losing 1-0 at home to Espanyol heading into the 45th minute, but went on to win 5-1 on the back of Messi’s treble.
Unlike when the sides met at the Parc des Princes, PSG will also have their own devastating forward on in their lineup. Zlatan Ibrahimović was out injured in September, but he is back at full throttle now and has scored four goals in his last three matches. And the Swedish star will have extra motivation to excel at a venue where he spent a single season before leaving in acrimonious circumstances in 2010.
“Ibrahimović is a top player,” Enrique, who was Barcelona B coach at the time Ibrahimović was at the Camp Nou, said. “If he's at his best he's difficult to stop. If we can defend as a block, fewer balls will reach Ibra. He can decide a match at any given moment, which is why he's a top player. It helps that some of the players here were with him at Barcelona a few years back. It's an advantage but football changes constantly.”
Laurent Blanc’s side have begin the season by going 22 matches unbeaten in all competitions, yet their seven draws from 17 Ligue 1 matches mean they sit second in the table behind a Marcelo Bielsa-inspired Marseille. Desperate to make their mark in Europe after spending vast sums on their squad, PSG have been eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the past two seasons. And Blanc is well aware that their task of at least getting back to the last eight this time around is likely to be made more straightforward by taking at least a point on Wednesday.
“It's a match for prestige but there is a difference between finishing first and second in the group,” he said. “It'll be a difficult game. We are aware that Barcelona have several Champions League titles to their name so we have to win games like these.
“We know the advantage finishing top brings. You avoid certain opponents and all these details count in the long run. I have told my players to be ambitious and aggressive, to put Barcelona in a tight spot. We won't be fielding ten defenders. We simply have to defend. We will get chances to score though.”
Prediction: in the first match in Paris, PSG exploited Barcelona’s weaknesses at both defending set-pieces and on counter-attacks. Blanc made no secret of the fact that his side expect to concede a lot of possession and will focus on taking their limited chances to go forward. With the likes of the electric Lucas Moura as well as the far from sluggish Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to choose from in wide areas, PSG will again be dangerous on the break.
At the other end, with Luis Suarez still struggling to find his feet as part of a star-studded front three, Barcelona have been heavily reliant on Messi once more in recent weeks. Still, with a player of the once-in-a-generation quality of Messi, that’s hardly a disaster. There have been 11 goals in the previous three matches between these sides over the last two seasons, and with so much attacking talent more should be on the way on Wednesday. With Barcelona still trying to find the right balance, it could well be PSG, though, that leave the happier.
Barcelona 2-2 PSG
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2, ESPN Deportes