Well, this is weird, being culer and the feeling of looking forward to a Champions League knockout match that features FC Barcelona.
Since the delight of beating Juventus in that final during a treble season that seems like about a million years ago, subsequent Champions League campaigns have featured failure. Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien have been the stewards of misery, and every elimination has come down to a simple thing: players not doing what they were supposed to be doing.
The two Bayern beatdowns were legit. But the legacy of failure that has plagued the team we love has been more frustrating for the unnecessary nature of it. Atleti? FINISH. Juventus? Laconic, lazy, finishing. Rome? Finishing, right down to Messi at the end. Give him that chance 10 times, he scores 9 of them. That was the one time that he snatched at the shot with the keeper at his mercy. Liverpool? Dembele’s Camp Nou miss, the many first half chances spurned at Anfield.
And then came Bayern last year, the most painful of them all because of how the team meekly succumbed to the beating it was handed. Semedo was the talk of that match, but for me, it was the team. They gave it up, slumped shoulders, dropped heads, just waiting for the lash. Bayern was probably always going to win that match, but jeesh … do something. Get stuck in, fight back.
So yeah. Trauma.
This year brings to mind the Buffalo Springfield song “For What it’s Worth” and the lyric, “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear” It’s something that has been alluded to before in this space, the idea of Koeman building something. The team is on a winning streak in La Liga, even if this Copa business seems to be a bugbear, first the Athletic Club loss at the death, then the first-leg semi vs Sevilla, a desultory stroll through the tulips that Barça assuredly already regrets. Expect a much better showing in the second leg.
But still, trauma.
It had to be PSG, the club that started the curse years, showing up when Barça has a chance at redemption. The glorious 6-1 remuntada, one of the most blissful matches in club history, brought with it a curse. Barça was eliminated the next round, and hasn’t tasted real Champions League success since then. And here’s PSG, at a moment in the club’s history where during a rebuilding year, amid a European competition where the backlog of matches, injuries and spotty form among the top clubs has made this tournament more of a crap shoot than it’s been in a while.
This Barça team feels like it needs something else, another shot in the arm like the Granada comeback, something to keep a gaudy 2021 going, like an entire football team, at midnight on December 31 took the New Year, New You to heart. It’s easy to scoff and say, “Yeah, but the opponents.” The first time Alaves played Barça this season, it was a draw that could have been a win. The second time was a beatdown. It would be glib to say “Yeah, but the opponents” and ignore that the team is progressing, is playing better football, looking more cohesive even as it is still not doing fundamental things, essentials that might cost it against PSG. Closing down, keeping contain on attackers, not letting a forward get goal side, stopping the damn ball. If Barça was a tennis player, it would be the player in the perfect whites and elegant tennis sweater, who plonks the life out of the shots within his reach, but the shot that requires a stiff sprint and a deep, hard effort? “Nice one, chap,” while applauding. And the tennis whites stay clean.
PSG has every last one of the things that can kill this Barça team in a way that might require an exorcist in the wake, including team speed, super-fast counters and a gazelle in Kylian Mbappe, who the defense is going to have to figure out some way to stop, or at least slow down so that people can get set. PSG is without Neymar, Di Maria and Verratti, but the squad is deep. Icardi and Kean can still do damage, the latter being the precise kind of quick, mobile finisher that can give the Barça defense fits.
And yet it doesn’t seem as clear-cut as all of that, because this season, every time PSG has played a team with a creative attacker coupled with a fast one, they have struggled. Most recently on the weekend against Nice, a team that was only better finishing away from getting a result. And then there’s Messi, a player who, in the form he is in right now, is a worrying force, particularly in Champions League, where his motivation has to be at dizzying levels. He and Dembele will be significant against PSG. If both have good matches, Barça will win. It’s as simple as that even if it isn’t.
Because dammit, trauma.
Hoodoos and jinxes are things that rational people are hard-pressed to believe in. But if you were to say to yourself that you believed this team has a psychological block when it comes to Champions League knockouts, a fear factor that hampers and hinders as it fills players with fear of failure and floods their brows with flop sweat — you would be nodding in agreement with yourself.
And yet, there is indeed something happening here. A steel, a spine that has manifested itself recently. It will never be more important for a team to show up. A unified force that places strict emphasis on doing all of the right things. There is much talk of the back line, and who will start with Pique back in the frame and Araujo, the team’s best CB on form, still nursing an ankle sprain. But if the rest of the team doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, it won’t matter if Christ off the cross is playing CB. Ter Stegen will have his hands full, hopefully not of balls that he has to pluck out of his own net.
This tie is Barça’s to lose, which is a weird thing to say, because trauma. We aren’t used to looking at this team and thinking that it can, that it should, beat an opponent, especially in Champions League knockouts, but that is where we’re at right now. If Barça does what it is supposed to, they will advance. But that will mean fighting, getting those tennis whites dirty.
In thinking about XIs, you have fantasy, and then probable reality. One fantasyland XI would be:
Mingueza Pique Umtiti Dest
And let’s explain that back line and midfield, shall we? There are two ways to play Mbappe: having someone who can run with him, or someone who plays him physically. Barça doesn’t have the former, but it does have the latter. That also puts Dest up against a weaker side of the PSG team. Pique is back because he is fit, which makes him the best CB on the team until Araujo gains full fitness. Then it comes down to Umtiti vs Lenglet, or active and ball progression against the inevitable PSG press, or passive against the PSG pace. Umtiti will make errors, but don’t kid yourself — so will Lenglet. Both have. So when thinking about ball security, and making Messi have to do less work before moving into attack, Umtiti is the obvious choice.
In midfield, industry is essential. It’s worth sacrificing Busquets on the ball to prevent the defense being damaged by Busquets off the ball. It also adds pressing and industry in Pedri and Puig.
The front line needs less explaining, but Griezmann lives in the half spaces that PSG so often cedes to attackers. Griezmann also puts in work on defense, which will be crucial, especially at the beginning of a PSG move.
All that said, this is the most likely lineup:
Dest Pique Lenglet Alba
De Jong, Pedri
Dembele Messi Griezmann
Predictions are hard, because who the hell knows what Barça team is going to show up. But if the one that I suspect shows up that, combined with Pochettino playing it tight because you can lose a tie in the first leg, even against a tramatized group such as Barça, means that I expect Barça to win at home, draw in Paris and advance to the semis, where we will have to do this all again, because trauma, squared.
Why? Who the hell wants to lose to PSG, and them have Messi standing there watching them celebrate as the final straw in his decision-making process.