UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain
Imagine the statement it will make to the rest of Europe if we can get a result at the Camp Nou tonight. Not only will it be incredible but it will validate top-spot which will be massive ahead of next week’s last-16 draw. This will ensure we avoid the likes of Bayern Munich, Chelsea and the European champions Real Madrid. You never need an incentive when you face Barcelona – it is a privilege in itself – but the stakes tonight are huge!
We know what we have to do. Avoid defeat! Easier said than done of course, especially against a side that can obliterate anyone on their day in front on nearly 100,000 spectators. The cauldron of noise will not faze Les Parisiens. Eight or nine of the starting eleven that last played there will most probably be on show tonight (only Alex and Christophe Jallet have departed from that starting-XI in April 2013).
The 3-2 victory back in September was a combination of things; ability, good tactics and desire. We executed a real effective game plan against Luis Enrique’s men. They do have flaws at the back and the fact that little Marco Verratti was able to pop-up with his first ever goal for the club – via a corner – with his head remonstrated that.
We were excellent. Soon as we went 3-1 up we did panic somewhat as Neymar quickly responded with a stunning finish to make it 3-2. But, the commitment for the final 30 minutes from the boys was absolutely marvellous. Laurent Blanc is not renowned for being tactically great but his players were so disciplined and organised. They also created Barca problems via the counter-attack as the sought after an equaliser. Monsieur Blanc silenced a few doubters on that night but he faces the same questions this evening. The second-leg defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge back in the spring does linger over him. We had the destiny in our own hands against Jose Mourinho’s men but ultimately faltered.
Tonight, no stone can be left unturned from the coach’s point of view. As I said earlier in the week, he does face a conundrum. Do we go there and play our own game? No, because we will get picked off. At the same time can we just go there and defend? Absolutely not! We are a team not capable of doing that for 90 minutes. Plus, it would betray the philosophy of playing attractive football which LB always wants us to do. He has to find the right balance and it is a catch-22 for him. However, these are the nights where he is going to be judged. Make or break situations where a result can give us a favourable draw, or a loss that will match us against a possible heavyweight.
Barca responded to our victory over them with three back to back wins. They were then beaten on the bounce by Real Madrid and Celta Vigo. Since then though, their form has been imperious. Seven straight wins. The last being a 5-1 demolition of local rivals Espanyol. The little magician Lionel Messi netted a hat-trick on the night and in the run up to this game he became La Liga’s all-time leading scorer. He is just an absolute phenomenon. Keeping him at bay tonight is a task in itself, let alone focusing on the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez.
There will be no surprises with how the Catalans line-up. 4-3-3, Messi through the middle, supported by Neymar and Suarez. Pedro would probably be a safer bet for them having made an impact at the weekend after coming off the bench. I cannot see him starting mind. As for us though, Le Parisien reported yesterday that either Blaise Matuidi or Javier Pastore will be on the bench – judging by the practice session yesterday morning at Camp des Loges. The possible starting team consisted of Sirigu, Van der Wiel, Silva, Luiz, Maxwell, Motta, Verratti, Lucas, Cavani and Ibra. BM and JP were apparently swapping with each other during this. To be honest, I cannot see how Blanc could not start either. Pastore is a catalyst for us on the break and we need Matuidi’s legs in midfield as there will be large quantities of the game where we do not have the ball. That will be a bold call from Blanc, especially as Verratti only started his first game for a number of weeks against Nantes last Saturday.
We have led Group-F ever since match-day two. It will be a bitter pill to swallow if we are to falter at the final hurdle. Our unbeaten start to the season is at stake, so is our chances of making it to the latter rounds of this competition. If we can indeed get that result we crave, what a boost that will give everyone affiliated with the club.