That is the easiest way to answer anyone who might ask about tomorrow’s return leg against Paris St.-Germain.
Logically, given what happened in the first leg and the seeming disparity between the two sides, another remuntada would appear to be out of the question, but again …
As a sporting and political enterprise, FC Barcelona has had quite a week, with all the remuntadas, beatdowns and now a new president in Joan Laporta who has everyone all giddy and stuff. It would only seem logical that the winning streak would continue as the club makes history against a nouveau-riche rival. But …
Let’s manage the improbables first. PSG could lose 0-4
0-3 to Barça. They aren’t the force they have been in previous years, and have looked vulnerable at the front and back, when a team sets up to play them correctly, which Barça did not do the last outing. At Camp Nou, Koeman seemed to say, “Let me figure out every last possible way to give PSG an advantage,” then set up his side that way. Slow midfielders? Check. Giving Busquets lots of space to cover? Check. Starting Dest, who gets caught up pitch and cedes space defensively? Check. Setting up a situation where Dembele has to play fullback? Check. Pique as the starting CB, just off a knee injury? Check. Everything that could have gone wrong did, and the only miracle is that the 4-1 wasn’t worse.
Had Koeman used the formation that he now seems to have settled on, that match wouldn’t have ended 4-1, and we would be excited about this second leg instead of thinking, “So, well, uh … hmmm … welp … dunno.” But he didn’t, so we should look at probabilities for tomorrow. Here goes.
Now that’s out of the way, what would be a fondest desire from tomorrow’s match, aside from a glorious remuntada? That the team looks like it’s ready to play a Champions League elimination match. They didn’t just get outplayed by PSG, who took full advantage of every weakness. There were times, too many times, where it looked like they didn’t want to be there, that “This again?” face of a team for whom failure on the biggest stage has become commonplace. So the best thing for Barça will be to show some fight, show that they aren’t overawed, aren’t looking for an excuse to let happen what so many expect to happen.
Frenkie De Jong said that they are going to Paris to “compete.” Shame he didn’t say, “We’re going to Paris to kick the shit out of them. They did it to us, we can do it to them, cuz they ain’t that good.” But Barça doesn’t have that kind of swagger yet, the kind of swagger that essentially gave them a goal or two before a ball was even kicked, the kind of swagger that makes an opponent such as PSG, who YOU KNOW is thinking about that remuntada, that iconic 6-1 and thinking, “This can’t happen again,” worry. Why?
Like or not, old or not, Barça has players who have Been There, who understand what it takes to do something amazing. But those same players forgot that essential quality at Rome, and at Anfield. So what about this time? Put very clearly, if the biggest of them all, Messi, shows up to play, Barça not only can do it, they will do it. And by “shows up to play,” it isn’t dishing out a gem of a pass or two, then spending the rest of the match skulking about, below his usual standard. I mean Messi finding a way to dominate the match as the player that he is, rather than making runs at banks of defenders, losing the ball then strolling around until the ball comes back to him. We have seen entirely too much of that of late. Koeman has adapted his team to the capabilities that it has. Messi is the best player in the history of the game, and what’s interesting about the team now it that it has never been more ready to play WITH, rather than for, Messi. This timing is perfect.
To be sure, Messi supplied both assists as Barça most recently defeated Osasuna. But it’s also important to note that the goal scorers did the bulk of the work, particularly Ilaix. Messi isn’t MESSI any longer, all star-spangled and neon when he gets the ball. But Messi can influence, can change a match like no player alive, and certainly no player in the game. When Messi tells players they should give the ball back to him when they don’t, they should return the favor. “Feed me, Leo!” It’s still uncertain whether Messi will stay at FC Barcelona, but this match, this moment, is one tailor made for a colossus of the game. The way Koeman has them playing, they no longer need Messi to do what he used to do. They’re just ready and waiting for him. He’s their leader, still, and he should be. How he plays against PSG will be crucial in defining the possibilities for the team.
Dembele is ready, Pedri is ready, De Jong is ready, everybody is ready. The word that Messi was jack-jawing with Sevilla in the tunnel after the Camp Nou remuntada was beautiful music to our ears. Messi isn’t the most talented player, therefore he is wearing the armband. He defends his team on AND off the pitch, shows up at Camp Nou for vote for his new president. He’s a leader, and will be needed in all his glory for the PSG match to turn.
But they will need Alba to play against PSG with the same confidence that he plays against Osasuna, for Busquets to understand that this isn’t a time to caress the ball but to keep it moving, for the fullbacks to have watched match videos of teams that got results against PSG and understand something about how to play Mbappe. Put him on his ass, get physical, make him work for space. There is no doubt that Koeman will tell his players this. Whether they execute it is another matter, but make no mistake: Barça is better than every last team that got a result against PSG this season. Monaco beat PSG both matches this season, most recently a 2-0 win. Barça doesn’t have better athletes than those teams, but Barça has better players. What the mentality of those players will be for the match is something we have yet to find out. It’s the great unknown.
PSG hates to be challenged, and Barça didn’t challenge PSG at Camp Nou. They succumbed, and Koeman didn’t have an answer. This will also be a coming of age match for PSG. Can they close it out against a nemesis. If Alba isn’t ready to play after how Mbappe treated him at Camp Nou, he’s never going to be ready to play. PSG will be as uncertain as Barça is, even though they have a three-goal lead, because of that massive 6-1. That sticks with you, just like Champions League failure has stuck with Barça. Both teams will have much to prove.
Even if Barça loses the tie, winning the match, say 1-2, it will be exciting because it will show that at long last, this team is ready for something more than Champions League failure. A former cycling coach described pain as a door. When you have to dig deep, to make an effort, to sprint or do something decisive to win a race, it hurts. It always hurts. And riders go up to that door. Some don’t even touch the knob. Others peer through the keyhole and flinch. Others open it, look inside and recoil. Still others stride right through it, because that’s what they have to do to get to where they want to be. Barça is looking at a door in this match, and what they are going to do when they get there?