Tito Vilanova has two major selection concerns ahead of the visit of Paris Saint-Germain. Lionel Messi is recovering from injury and may be replaced in attack by Cesc Fabregas, who scored a hat-trick at the weekend against Mallorca. In defence Javier Mascherano’s suspension, coupled with Carlos Puyol’s injury, means Vilanova will choose between Adriano, Sergio Busquets and Marc Bartra to partner Gerard Pique.
For Carlo Ancelotti, Blaise Matuidi’s suspension means that David Beckham is likely to continue alongside Marco Verratti, with the semi-fit Thiago Motta offering reinforcements from the bench. In attack Ezequiel should continue in his support role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, occupying Busquets before moving forward in attack. Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore will offer invention in the channels.
Barcelona’s injury problems surely give PSG hope, and Ancelotti will believe that the system that stifled the Catalans for much of the first leg and posed an aerial threat throughout can have more success against a side missing their star player and liable to field a makeshift centre back.
Adriano, Alex Song or Marc Bartra?
Barcelona have never been particularly strong in the air, and neither Javier Mascherano (5’8’’) nor Carlos Puyol (5’10’’) are sizable defenders, but replacing them with 5’7’’ Adriano for a game containing one of the game’s best crossers (Beckham) and headers (Ibrahimovic) is a risky prospect. Adriano is seen as Vilanova’s best alternative, but even he may be deemed too unfit to play. If that is the case, then young Bartra – seemingly out of his depth in the first leg – or, more likely, Busquets will come in. In theory Busquets at 6’2’’ would offer a decent option, but his loss would be felt further upfield where Song has failed to offer the same reliable distribution of his Spanish colleague.
Whoever Vilanova settles on will expect a difficult time. PSG had a clear plan of attack in the first leg and both goals came from crosses into the box – the first a rebound from Thiago Silva’s header and the second a long diagonal ball from right to left that Ibrahimovic headed into the path of Matuidi.
Even when the understudy scores three goals at the weekend, the possibility of Messi’s absence is still cause for concern. Fabregas is a fine player and possesses comparable passing and finishing ability, but lacks the Argentine’s direct running and dribbling skills that add so much to Barcelona’s play. At times, as in the first leg against AC Milan, Vilanova’s side can look quite one-dimensional, a team full of passers seemingly more intent on ball retention than threatening the score sheet. A handful of players change that: Pedro’s diagonal runs have long been a source of penetration, as has the directness of David Villa and Alexis Sanchez – Vilanova has admittedly been more eager to include these players since the Milan defeat – but Messi is the player that fuses the two, a passer and a runner.
Messi adds something else – a near-constant presence both between the lines whilst somehow always remaining in goalscoring possessions. In contrast Fabregas tends to interpret the role differently and remain further upfield, denying Barcelona that threat in front of the opponent’s defence. Andres Iniesta can fill this area but has now moved to a central midfield role, and therefore does so at the risk of leaving Xavi exposed in the middle of the pitch. Out wide neither Pedro nor Villa have the creativity or technical skill to prosper in the same way Messi can.
Should the Argentine fail to make the starting XI Barcelona aren’t just missing their best player; they are also losing the biggest cog in their tactical machine.
Ancelotti’s system at PSG has echoed the Brazil side of the 1990s – a 4-2-2-2 shape with little natural width but plenty of movement from midfield. Against Barcelona this system changed slightly, with Lavezzi dropping off the front line to offer an attacking trio in midfield and maintain pressure on Busquets throughout. The plan is likely to be repeated, but PSG’s other creators, Pastore and Moura, will have to decide about how wide to play.
Pastore will be particularly important as he will be faced with Dani Alves, who will be happy to run passed him at every opportunity. Pastore is not known for his defensive work but will need to be willing to help Maxwell down the left, before breaking forward in the channels as he did so successfully in the first leg. Moura is more natural out wide and has the pace to engage Jordi Alba. Both players will want to find pockets of space in the channels from where to carry the ball forward and deliver crosses.
Ancelotti’s gameplan and key absentees to their opponents arguably gives PSG a chance that few would have predicted when the draw was made. The reality is though that a win will be necessary given Barcelona’s two away goals, and so Beckham will likely be key from a quarterback position, drilling long diagonal balls for Ibrahimovic to head down and Lavezzi to chase. Set pieces will also be targeted, so a direct and scrappy gameplan should be expected from the visitors.
Barcelona will believe that they still have the players and the style to secure a home victory – they have already dispelled doubts against Milan in emphatic fashion. However with Messi possibly missing and a vulnerability at the back, a comfortable home win against an emerging PSG side would arguably be an even greater statement of intent ahead of the semi-finals.