For the second time this season Barça travel to Paris to take on Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League. The teams met in the group stage with the French team winning 3-2 at the Parc des Princes back in September but Barça finished top of Group F after gaining revenge with a 3-1 win at Camp Nou in December. Now the teams face off in the Quarter-Finals with tomorrow’s first leg in Paris (Wednesday 8.45 pm) followed by the return game in Barcelona next Tuesday.
Luis Enrique named a squad of 22 players for the trip including Munir El-Haddadi from Barça B with only the suspended Dani Alves and the not-quite-fit-yet Thomas Vermaelen remaining in Barcelona. Replacing Alves is undoubtedly the Barça coach’s biggest headache. For the PSG game in December when Alves was also unavailable we saw a back three of Bartra, Piqué and Mathieu and this could also be a possibility tomorrow though more likely with Piqué, Mascherano and Mathieu. However, as the game is away from home a defence of four would seem more prudent which leaves the question of who to play at right-back. Montoya, Adriano and Douglas are the obvious options though we could see a surprise with either Bartra or Mascherano, or even Pedro, offering possible alternatives for the role.
Besides the right-back position and Ter Stegen returning in goal, the team will look very similar to the side that drew 2-2 at Sevilla on Saturday. There could be a change in midfield where Rafinha, Mascherano or Xavi might provide fresh legs, though Rakitic, Busquets and Iniesta looks like the most likely threesome. Mascherano could also partner Piqué in defence though as Mathieu got the role in Seville, presumable due to Sevilla’s aerial threat, it would make sense to start Mathieu again given PSG’s strength at set pieces.
PSG scored from a free-kick and from a corner in their 3-2 victory in the group stage and they again demostrated their ability at set pieces eliminating Chelsea in the last 16. Barça have looked much better recently in defending these plays but tomorrow we will need total concentration if we concede corners or free-kicks to prevent the threat of Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Edinson Cavani. Fortunately PSG will be without the injured David Luiz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is suspended along with Serge Aurier and Marco Verratti. Thiago Motta remains a serious doubt but despite not training today he has not yet been ruled out completely.
UPDATE: David Luiz has surprisingly been included in PSG’s squad. Could he make a surprise return?
The French side arrive to the game in buoyant mood after lifting the French League Cup with a 4-0 victory over Bastia on Sunday with two goals each from Ibrahimovic and Cavani. Besides the group games this season Barça and PSG also met in the quarter-final stage of the competition in 2013. The first game in Paris ended 2-2 before a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou saw Barça advance to the semi-finals on away goals. It is notable that neither side has kept a clean sheet in the four recent meetings between the clubs and given the contrasting qualitites of the two teams I’d be surprised if this trend is broken tomorrow.
Finally, a few words on the controversy created over Neymar’s substitution on Sunday with the Brazilian throwing a strop after being taken off. Firstly, there is the question of whether it was a good substition, and I have to say that I certainly didn’t jump out of my seat to complain at the time. You can argue about the merits of replacing a forward with a midfielder but it’s not exactly unheard of when defending a narrow lead. So, then there is the question is which forward, and here I’m sure we can all agree that Neymar was having a better game than Suárez. Nevertheless it could easily be argued that Suárez is better defensively that the Brazilian and he helps out more in defending set-pieces. When you take this into account the substitution, whether you agreed with it or not at the time, at least makes sense.
Secondly, the is the question of Neymar’s reaction. Here, while I might not like these demonstrations of indiscipline, I can totally understand a player being frustrated or angry at being taken off. Some people are more expressive with their emotions but we must be understanding of different characters and personalities within the group. It was a heat-of-the-moment reaction and should be treated with understanding and basically forgotten.
This brings me to the final question of how Luis Enrique handled the situation, at least publically, by saying he has no interest in these things. The coach understands and handles the press very well and by not getting drawn into stupid controversies he limits the importance of these stories. His style of player management seems somewhat distant but I don’t have a problem with that. If you compare it to Pep Guardiola’s style of bonding with the group, we might remember Guardiola’s problems near the end with dealing with difficult decisions when players were past their best. Perhaps another weakness of Guardiola as a coach was his inability to accept indiscipline and we lost the talent of Eto’o and then Ibrahimovic as a consequence. I wonder whether Pep would have brushed the Neymar incident under the carpet so easily.
Barça’s 22-man squad: Ter Stegen, Bravo, Masip, Montoya, Douglas, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Mathieu, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Xavi, Rakitic, Iniesta, Rafinha, Pedro, Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Munir.
PSG: Sirigu; Van der Wiel, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Maxwell; Matuidi, Rabiot, Cabaye; Pastore, Cavani, Lavezzi.
Barça: Ter Stegen; Adriano, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
My bet: correct score – PSG 2 Barça 2 (current odds 17.00) The best odds for soccer betting are at William Hill.
Date: Wednesday 15 April 2015. Kick-off 8.45 pm CET