There are unlikely to be many surprises when Paris Saint-Germain host Barcelona on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. The two sides met twice in this season’s group stage, when they shared a victory apiece, as well as in the last eight of the competition two seasons ago when Barcelona triumphed on away goals. Providing more positive memories for the French champions, though, is another quarterfinal matchup against the Catalans 20 years ago when PSG triumphed to reach the last four for the first and still only time in their history.
Getting back to that rarified European air is the task that now stands before coach Laurent Blanc, and has been the focus of attention since the millions started pouring into the club following Qatari Sports Investment’s takeover four years ago. It would be some story, though, were it to come this season.
For much of the campaign, Blanc has appeared to be on the precipice of losing his job, with the side failing to back up their huge financial advantage over the rest of Ligue 1 on the pitch. And a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in their final match of the League group phase appeared that it would prove fatal to their Champions League hopes. It meant PSG dropping into a runners-up spot, resulting in a Round of 16 draw against the team that ousted them from the competition last season, Chelsea. Following a 1-1 draw in Paris and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early sending off in the second leg at Stamford Bridge, the writing appeared on the wall for PSG’s ambitions and Blanc’s future. Instead, they showed admirable character with 10 men to twice come from a goal down and eventually pull off a famous win in extra-time.
That ability to thrive in adversity and produce a quality performance when it matters most was again in evidence as they twice fought back at a hostile Stade Velodrome earlier this month to beat Marseille 3-2 in a top-of-the-table clash. But those two triumphs came at a significant cost. Not only will Ibrahimovic will miss the first leg against his former club following his Chelsea dismissal, but Marco Verratti and Serge Aurier will also be suspended. Adding to PSG’s task against the Catalans, the world’s most expensive defender David Luiz and key midfielder Thiago Motta picked up injuries against Marseille that have left both on the sidelines.
Barcelona’s issues are minor in comparison, with just the suspended Dani Alves and long-term absentee Thomas Vermaelen unavailable. In his first season at the club, Luis Enrique has guided Barcelona to the Champions League quarterfinals for a record eighth consecutive season. In doing so, they produced a fine performance, highlighted by a scintillating display from Lionel Messi, to beat Manchester City 1-0 at the Camp Nou last month and complete a comfortable 3-1 aggregate win over the English champions.
It was a performance that illustrated the strides the team has made after a difficult start to Enrique’s tenure. Since a defeat to Real Sociedad at the start of 2015, which led to significant fall out both within the team and behind the scenes, Barcelona have won 20 of their 22 matches in all competitions. Key to that run has been the gelling of the side’s star forward trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. And in the buildup to the clash with PSG, Messi has revealed that he now feels back to the level that saw him voted the best player in the world between 2009 and 2012.
“I was inconsistent last season. I was out for a while due to injury, missing quite a few games,” he told Barcelona’s official magazine. “When I came back I didn’t feel right. It was a year that I have tried to quickly forget to try and get back to my best through hard work, smiling and effort, like I always have and now, fortunately, I feel very good.”
Messi struck his 45th goal of the season on Saturday, but Barcelona’s nine game winning streak was snapped as Sevilla came back from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw. The result means Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga is cut to just two points to Real Madrid.
Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain’s ability to raise themselves for the big games mean their chances cannot be dismissed in this tie, especially in the first leg at home. But the absence of so many important players, especially the hugely influential midfield presence of former Barcelona man Motta is a huge blow to their chances. They will still be encouraged by the way they were able to punish Barcelona on the counter-attack in their 3-2 win in Paris earlier this season and the defensive errors that surfaced against Sevilla.
But Barcelona have generally been much more solid at the back of late, and Enrique’s more pragmatic approach may be in evidence away from home. Barcelona are unlikely to be too disappointed to come away from the French capital with a draw and an away goal to take back to the Camp Nou next week.
Predicted score: PSG 1-1 Barcelona