European football expert Graham Hunter explains that there are major concerns for Barcelona in their Champions League quarter-final, but why Cesc Fabregas should be backed to continue his red-hot form.
Right now everyone is waiting to see whether or not Leo Messi starts against PSG. Just for the moment I’m far more interested in another kind of weighting. Sometimes the force of pre-match opinion stems from unassailable facts and it’s true to say that, at the Camp Nou, and with two away goals, history favours FC Barcelona.
But there are major provisos.
The weighting, or handicapping, which the Champions League and the natural ageing process have introduced to this tie make it fascinating – and risky for the home team.
To explain. There have been times when Barcelona have not simply been divine to watch, they’ve been an absolute brute to play against.
Particularly during the heights of Pep Guardiola’s reign I loved the mixed zone after the match. You’d interview Barcelona’s opponents and, well before praising the Blaugrana, they’d explain to you what a horrible experience it was when you didn’t have a millisecond to think, not a blink of the eye to just ensure the ball was properly controlled.
Playing Barcelona was like trying to compose a classical symphony in a kids’ nursery – constant harassment, increasing irritability, total futility.
Not now. In each of the four seasons when Barça have won this competition they’ve conceded two goals or fewer across all four quarter-final and semi-final matches.
The two conceded at Parc des Princes indicates that, historically, if Barça ship even one more goal then they are in big trouble.
So, is there something to worry about? Yes. Here’s the weighting.
- Carles Puyol has always defied his lack of height, always brought that little bit of extra ‘the badge matters’ to Barça’s displays. But he’s out.
- Javier Mascherano is often, albeit not always, a useful deputy at centre back and was a star performer in the 4-0 win over AC Milan last time. He’s out.
- Tito Vilanova, just back from cancer treatment in New York, needs to choose between Marc Bartra, Alex Song, Adriano, Busquets and Uncle Tom Cobbley when he chooses Gerard Piqué’s playing partner.
Meanwhile, there’s no escaping that PSG not only possess players to attack the ball aerially with extreme skill and power, they can also call on a number of footballers who use the ball well when putting the ball into the penalty box.
Moreover, Barça’s other kryptonite, pace, is something which PSG have to a reasonable degree. Lucas, particularly, is blindingly quick and Ezequiel Lavezzi has more savvy about when to counter attack than he has blistering pace. But sometimes it’s all about the first few metres in your head, not your feet.
So while Barcelona are at home, have two away goals, possess a terrific Champions League record at the Camp Nou and can boast a handful of World Champions (Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Victor Valdés, Busquets, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas and Piqué) there are a couple of specifics in the PSG locker which alter the handicapping.
IF Messi doesn’t start, and he patently wants to given the extra training, extra physio and extra recuperation work he´s undertaken since last week, then Barça are reduced from, I’d still say, the best in the world to a very good team.
IF, into the bargain, PSG have one of those nights when the ball is used well and Alex, Thiago Silva and Zlatan keep winning it in the air then we could have quite a tie.
To the meat.
Cesc Fabregas is, in my opinion, a streak scorer. Not prolific, prolific, but it´s the case that his five-a-side background has made him a very efficient, silky finisher.
And while he talks with a great deal of self-assurance, I’m of the opinion that his self belief fluctuates. Hence the reason he scores in bursts. Get one goal – four or five follow.
The stats tell the story. Four in four in August and September 20007, five in four in December and January 09/10, four in four during February and March 2010, five in four with Barça August and September 2011 then four in three across December and January 2012. Following his first hat trick and two assists at the weekend, back him to score and or assist tonight.
Having said that PSG looked capable of scoring again at the Camp Nou when Alex, Thiago Silva and Zlatan won the ball in the air from set-plays and open play. Lavezzi, too, will feed off the knockdowns the Swede will provide him. Perm through and pick one of them for a goal.
Juventus v Bayern Munich
Juventus? They simply didn’t show up last week. But Antonio Conte has been firing his men up to fever pitch. He’s told them that Bayern Munich dived in the first tie, that Franz Beckenbuer insulted Gigi Buffon and that Juve embarrassed themselves.
Way to stoke up an atmosphere!
Bayern were limited in their Bundesliga title celebrations on Saturday but, even so, there is often a ‘hangover’. I take Juve to sneak a win, Vucnic to score and Spanish referee Velasco Carballo to be pushed into breaking his record of never having shown a red card in his 29 Uefa ties thus far.