UEFA’s disciplinary committee did all fans -- other than Barcelona’s -- a huge favor when they reduced Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ban to just one game ensuring that the beguiling Swede can play both legs of Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League quarterfinal against his former club.
Not only does the reduction in his penalty for a sending off in the first leg of the round-of-16 clash with Valencia provide an extra subplot to the first leg, but it also gives the Ligue 1 leaders a much increased chance of keeping the tie alive heading back to Camp Nou.
Ibrahimovic is a player that on his day is among the true elite of the world game. Against Barcelona he has overwhelming motivation to put in two of his finest performances.
The phenomenally gifted forward moved to Camp Nou in 2009 to join the then European champions with the aim of providing a physical presence to Barcelona’s attacking line, while also being able to fit in comfortably with the technically astute players around him.
But despite Ibrahimovic amassing over 20 goals it was a marriage that it was quickly apparent would be doomed for an early and acrimonious divorce. The player later complained that Lionel Messi’s insistence on playing centrally pushed him to the sidelines and didn’t allow him to flourish.
Ibrahimovic’s comments about then Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola were even more inflammatory; insinuating that his manager was frightened of him and that he was also obsessed to match up to great rival, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho.
Ibrahimovic undoubtedly firmly he believes that he matches up favorably with any of the litany of stars on the Barcelona team, including Messi, and will be desperate to show it.
He is consiidered crucial to his Paris Saint-Germain side. Carlo Ancelotti has a hugely expensive squad at his disposal, yet it is Ibrahimovic, with his 29 goals this season, who is by far the most dependable and influential performer.
In the second leg against Valencia, PSG toiled badly in Ibrahimovic’s absence in match that made a good argument for a rule being introduced to eliminate both sides such was the agonizing lack of quality.
Ibrahimovic’s supporting cast of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez are both experienced and quality players, while young Brazilian Lucas Moura has shown in flashes the potential he possesses. Yet, Ancelotti has struggled to find the right attacking blend and the side’s performances do not equate with a club that sits seven points clear in Ligue 1 and is in the last eight of the Champions League.
A 1-0 win over Montepellier last Friday, only secured by a late Kevin Gameiro goal, was a case in point, particularly in terms of their recent form.
Yet, for all their often lack of cohesion going forward, defensively PSG are very strong and therefore there is reason to believe that the matchup with Barcelona will suit them.
Thiago Silva is at the very least one of the best central defenders in the world and, now seemingly fully fit, he should have a fascinating battle with Lionel Messi.
In front of the defense, Ancelotti is likely to select a narrow and deep lying midfield three to try and combat Barcelona’s incredible midfield.
If, as expected, Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova puts Andres Iniesta in midfield, as happened to such breathtaking effect in the second-leg demolition of Milan in the last round, then PSG’s trio will still have their work cut out.
With Iniesta previously utilized in the forward line, the Spanish world Cup winner was easier to defend against, while it also meant that Barcelona had another player, like Messi, coming deep to get the ball rather than looking to pose a threat in behind.
Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello have both shown more encouraging signs in recent weeks that they can provide something different in attack, but it is likely that Vilanova will once again start with David Villa. Spain’s record goal scorer was brought in almost from the cold at Camp Nou against Milan and he played a key role in pushing the defense back and providing Messi with the space that he capitalized on spectacularly.
Yet there remain concerns that the other side of Barcelona’s slump prior to that result, a carelessness in defense, has yet to be fully overcome. Against relegation-threatened Celta Vigo on Saturday, the Blaugrana were leading 2-1 before an equalizer with just two minutes remaining saw them emerge with just a point.
If Barcelona fail to be mindful defensively against PSG, their opponents have the capability with the pace of Lucas and Lavezzi to cause real damage on the break.
Despite being at home in the first leg, the pattern is sure to be established early of PSG sitting deep, while Barcelona control the ball and look to probe for openings. Ancelotti would surely take a 0-0 draw to keep the tie alive and there is a chance that his side could frustrate a Barcelona team that has not always flourished away from home in Europe.
But having received a huge jolt in the first leg of their last-16 tie, and with Vilanova back on the sidelines, Barcelona should be fully switched on and Messi is liable to outshine Ibrahimovic yet again.
Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain 1-2 Barcelona