Here we are then, the Champions League is getting serious and we are down to the last eight. Tuesday night sees Barca head to the French capital to take on Paris St Germain in the first leg of their quarter final tie. The big news for the Catalans is the return of Tito Vilanova to the dugout after his treatment for throat cancer over the last couple of months. Also back is Jordi Alba, who suffered an injury whilst away on international duty, and Xavi returns too as he seemingly continues to have to pick and choose when to play due to his many niggles.
The big news for the French Champions-elect surrounds Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big striker was originally thought to be unavailable for this first game after being sent off in the previous round’s first leg against Valencia, but PSG successfully appealed his two match suspension. UEFA subsequently halved that ban, meaning he is now ready to face his former club in both games.
Paris St Germain are in excellent form, losing only two of their last twenty two matches in all competitions, racking up seventeen wins in that sequence. They currently sit seven points clear at the top of Ligue 1 with eight games to play, and in Zlatan, boast the league’s top scorer with twenty five goals. He also has notched twice in the Champions League.
As for Barca, they succumbed to a late leveller at Celta Vigo at the weekend, but remain thirteen points clear at the top of La Liga. Lionel Messi scored for an incredible nineteenth league match running, meaning he has now scored against every other team in the division in successive games (the last time he failed to net was on November 3 against Celta at Camp Nou). While the draw was disappointing, it is worth noting the amount of changes in the team. Among those not selected were the suspended Valdes, the injured Puyol and Alba, and the likes of Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Villa. Clearly, the game in Paris is top of the agenda, and rightly so.
After the debacle in Milan in the last round, Barca will want to be as fresh as possible in order to avoid any similar embarrassment this time around. It will be a tough encounter though, as the PSG squad is brimming with talent. One time Barca target Thiago Silva is a rock in the heart of defence, and the likes of Pastore, Gameiro and Lucas compliment Zlatan in attack.
The two clubs have only faced each other three times before in competitive matches, and it couldn’t be closer. Each club has won once, with a draw too. They haven’t faced off since the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final (what a great competition!) in 1997. This gave Barcelona their victory, a first half penalty from the original Ronaldo separating the two clubs. The other matches were in March 1995, at this same stage. PSG got a draw in Camp Nou, before triumphing in Paris in the second leg.
Players like Fabregas and Thiago had a chance at the weekend to push their respective cases for inclusion in the big games, but both were pretty awful against Celta. Christian Tello, on the other hand, had a good game, scoring a superb goal before setting up Messi’s historic strike. However, it’s unlikely that he will start on Tuesday, but expect to see him make an appearance from the bench, especially if the game needs stretching. This is my prediction:
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Messi, Alexis.
With Puyol and Pedro not in the squad, there isn’t an awful lot of wiggle room for Vilanova in terms of selection, with young Delofeu the only other option in attack other than Tello. I’d be almost tempted to put money on this being the lineup on Tuesday!
With the memories of Milan still painfully fresh in the mind, I am sure the players will not allow themselves to be in such a position again when the second leg rolls around. While PSG are far and away the best team in France, they haven’t exactly had to face an elite European side as yet, and this could be a rude awakening for them. I’m sure Zlatan has given his teammates as much information as he can regarding the opposition, but I’m not sure it will do much good.
I fully expect Barcelona to win this game, or at least get a score draw. There’s no doubt in my mind that Barca will progress, and I think they’ll win both legs, starting with a 2-1 victory in Paris.