Possibly the biggest marquee matchup of this year’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 is Barcelona vs PSG. The Catalan outfit will host Paris Saint Germain at the Camp Nou on Tuesday in a first leg titanic battle. Both sides are in fine form since the turn of the new year and will be hoping to establish a healthy advantage heading into the second leg.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona side have maintained a perfect record in La Liga in 2021. After their win against Deportivo Alaves on Saturday, the Blaugrana extended their winning streak in the league to seven matches. With Lionel Messi in full flight and players like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong finding new life, Barcelona have looked a lot more threatening of late.
PSG’s 3-2 defeat to Lorient in late January remains the only match they have lost since the beginning of the new year. They have been on a good run, winning all four of their games since then, conceding just one goal. There is no doubt that former Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino will be looking to continue this run with his new side against Barcelona.
Both sides, however, have their fair share of injury concerns heading into the tie. Although the Parisiens arguably have it worse; they will miss two of their key attacking players in Neymar and Angel Di Maria. Neymar will be gutted as he will miss his homecoming due to a lesion to his left adductor which he picked up against Caen. Di Maria is also set to miss out due to a right thigh problem.
Barcelona have plenty of fitness doubts as well. Defender Ronald Araujo who sprained his ankle against Real Betis is reportedly pushing his recovery to play against PSG but his status remains uncertain. With Gerard Pique still out as well, Barcelona’s backline is the central problem area since Sergino Dest has also struggled with his thigh of late.
With the tie looming around the corner, Barça Universal looks at the key battles that will decide the outcome of this first leg.
1. Lionel Messi vs Marquinhos
Barcelona’s mercurial captain against PSG’s anchor at the back. Marquinhos will have a massive task at hand if he is to keep Messi at bay. Nearly all of the attacking intent will flow through the Argentine and Marquinhos will have to make sure his defence is organised and alert at all times.
The Brazilian centre-back has been pivotal for the capital outfit. In his presence, they have managed to keep clean sheets in 12 out of the 15 matches he has played. He will have to play his usual physically imposing game and be proactive in cutting out passing lanes.
Messi will have to orchestrate his way out of the PSG defender’s keen attention. The Barcelona superstar has a good track record against PSG, scoring four goals against them prior to this encounter. He has also hit a purple patch since come January, scoring 9 goals across all competitions. And with the constant rumours linking him with a move to PSG, it will be interesting to see how he responds.
2. Kylian Mbappe vs Oscar Mingueza
Kylian Mbappe has been sensational for PSG this season, as he is their top scorer and second highest assister across all competitions. With Neymar and Di Maria out, the World Cup winner will undoubtedly be PSG’s biggest threat against the Blaugrana. And Mauricio Pochettino will be well aware of that fact.
And considering Barcelona’s uncertainty at the right-back position, Mbappe will be instructed to attack from the left flank relentlessly. Although Sergino Dest featured off the bench against Alaves, whether he’ll start against PSG remains a doubt, which means that La Masia youngster Oscar Mingueza will most likely continue deputising at right-back.
While Mingueza is solid defensively, he will have to be extra sharp against the lightning pace of Mbappe. The 21-year-old defender will have to keep tracking back without fail. He cannot allow the Frenchman even an inch of free space to run into. On paper, the matchup is rather one-sided given Mingueza’s inexperience in games of this stature, but there is no better stage for him to prove himself.
3. Frenkie De Jong vs Leandro Paredes
Frenkie De Jong’s recent run of form has been a source of delight for Barcelona fans. In his new advanced role in Ronald Koeman’s system, the former Ajax man has sparked into life. Not only is he anchoring the midfield with his passing and ball recovery, but he has also displayed major goalscoring threat.
De Jong will be instrumental if Barcelona are to win their midfield battle against PSG. However, it won’t be comfortable with Leandro Paredes on the other end. The Argentine’s form under Mauricio Pochettino has gone largely under the radar. But he has been an impeccable presence in the PSG midfield.
After initial concerns over his €40 million move from Zenit to the French capital, he has shown just why they shelled out the big bucks for him. With his relentless pressing, alertness to intercept and ability to dictate passing tempo, he is one to watch out for.
Since the departures of Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi, PSG seem to have finally found the ideal profile to complement Marco Verratti’s creative influx. Him and De Jong will definitely be the most dynamic players on the pitch. The battle between the two will play a massive part in deciding the outcome of Barcelona vs PSG.
A significant week in Barcelona for Lionel Messi’s future
It is a topic that gets the football world giddy. The fantasies of Lionel Messi playing in the Premier League, the formation of another star-studded front three alongside Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe, and for the romantics, a return to Argentina is set in their hearts.
After the infamous events of the summer of 2020, now more than ever, the biggest legend of FC Barcelona looks closer than ever to leaving.
Many Barça fans feel that it could be a good thing that the six-time Ballon D’or winner leaves, bringing up the point that the Catalan side needs a hard restart next season and the idea of building a team around a 33-year-old does not seem logical, as it only benefits the near future.
This is a valid point and most likely comes from those who want not only the best for Barca but Messi as well, as Cúlers are not ignorant to the fact that the club cannot promise their beloved number ten the fifth Champions League trophy he craves in its current situation.
However, in an ideal world, Barça fans would want Messi to stay and win his fifth European Cup wearing Blaugrana and if that is to happen, the week that went by is the only decider on course for the club and player alike.
The Copa Del Rey comeback
In the interview with Jordi Évole on LaSexta last December, Lionel Messi stated that he “wanted to keep competing to win trophies.”
Two weeks ago, that desire for this season looked unlikely. Atletico Madrid had a sizeable lead over the Catalans in La Liga, Paris Saint-Germain built up a 1-4 lead in the Champions League, and Sevilla had a 2-0 advantage in the Copa del Rey.
The first of these tasks was addressed on Wednesday night, in what turned out to be a memorable night in the history of FC Barcelona. A 94th minute Gerard Pique header sent Barça into extra time, where Martin Braithwaite completed the comeback to send the Catalans through to the final 3-2 on aggregate.
The chance to win another trophy would no doubt have pleased Messi but it is the story of the match that will help keep the Argentine at the club next season.
If Messi stopped and looked around the Camp Nou on Wednesday night, he would have seen determination and heart from his teammates to keep going to the final whistle, an abundance of youthful talent performing at a level beyond their years, and world-class players such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen ready to step up when certain challenges emerged.
Throughout one night, all these combined into a sort of presentation to the Argentine, exhibiting the future of FC Barcelona and where the team is headed.
There is no denying that the gap between Barcelona and Europe’s elite is still large, but this performance showed the signs Messi has called for and that is something that can be noted down for the future.
The perfect Liga weekend
Looking ahead to the weekend, the second of Barcelona’s comeback missions received an encouraging boost.
The Catalan side were looking to go 16 games unbeaten in La Liga in a match against twelfth place Osasuna and a win would not only see them extend this run but close the gap on Atletico Madrid to just two points, albeit with two games in hand.
The importance of this weekend lied in Atletico’s game as they face city rivals Real Madrid. In an ideal world, Barça fans would hope that the spoils are shared in El Derbi allowing the Blaugrana side to gain points on both Madrid clubs.
Barcelona’s prayers were catered to, and not only did the Catalan giants pick up three ugly, yet important points from their encounter against Osasuna, the capital outfits had to settle for a draw. Playing the angel’s advocate, even if Atleti had come away with the three points, it would essentially narrow the title race to just two teams considering Los Colchoneros gap at the top.
From Lionel Messi’s point of view, winning the La Liga title from the position Barça found themselves in a few weeks back would be a huge encouragement to stay for another season, especially if it is accompanied by the Copa del Rey. The Argentine has been part of teams that let leads slip over the last three seasons and to flip the script on that, would ultimately show progress.
The Presidential election
The final act of the week was the 2021 Presidential Election, where the next president of FC Barcelona was chosen on Sunday night. Joan Laporta, Victor Font, and Toni Freixa were the three candidates fighting for Barça’s top spot, and all have addressed the situation of Lionel Messi throughout their campaigns.
Joan Laporta had emerged as the favourite for a second spell, and like everyone suspected, the Spaniard swayed the elections, coming on top as the winner. Ideally, it would have a significant impact on the future of La Pulga, as Messi showed up to vote for the elections for the first time in his life. In fact, Laporta went on to claim that Leo congratulated him on the night. His renewal will be one of the many hurdles Laporta will have to jump over.
Throughout the presidential campaign, it has been rumoured that Messi will not stay if Joan Laporta does not win. Laporta himself fuelled these rumours on Tuesday during the last of the Presidential debates.
The Spaniard stated, “If I don’t win, I am sure that Leo will not stay at Barcelona”.
“If I don’t win, I am sure that Leo will not stay at Barcelona. “Messi will weigh up the offer we make him. I’m convinced that if the other candidates win, Messi will not remain at Barcelona. He wasn’t happy during Freixa’s time on the board.”Joan Laporta in the presidential debate
If these feelings are believed to be true, the future of Lionel Messi could take a dramatic twist on Sunday.
Having said all this, Lionel Messi’s future could come down to one simple desire, to win a fifth European Cup. At 33 years old, the Argentine does not have time on his side in this pursuit, and it could be years before Barcelona can compete for Europe’s top prize again.
With ready-made teams such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain waiting on the side-lines, the final decision in June could come down to this week — if this week does not make it for the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, there is little chance anything else will.