[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] The first leg between Barcelona and Paris St. Germain ended with PSG snatching a 2-2 tie during the dying seconds in Paris as Lionel Messi could only watch, nursing an injured hamstring. With a semifinal berth on the line at the Camp Nou Wednesday, and one team about to be eliminated, all eyes remain on La Pulga.
TV: Barcelona–Paris St. Germain (Wednesday 2:45 pm ET, Fox Soccer)
PALPITATIONS IN PARIS: Dani Alves’ magnificent 38th minute assist fed Messi’s opener for Barcelona in Tuesday’s first leg, but Leo left injured at halftime. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal for PSG in the 79th tied it before keeper Salvatore Sirigu gifted Xavi a penalty in the 89th, forcing Blaise Matuidi’s stoppage-time response salvaging 2-2.
THE ELEPHANT LEFT THE ROOM: Such is Messi’s greatness that the possible absence of this 5-foot-7 predator from Argentina has overshadowed an utterly fascinating game, which UEFA promises is to be played with or without the world’s best player.
A game featuring three of the other top 10 vote getters in this year’s Ballon d’Or. Andres Iniesta was third, Xavi was fourth, and Ibrahimovic was 10th. Thiago Silva is often lauded as the best central defender in the world, and PSG teammate Lucas Moura’s a rising star, at 20, with speed and skill in abundance.
But it is Messi challenging history itself, pointing both hands to the sky after almost exactly half of Barcelona’s goals this season, and eight of Barca’s 17 UCL goals. Left back Jordi Alba is next – with two.
Not expected to start, Tito Vilanova may have Messi available on the bench if needed. Marca’s readers in Spain voted that Messi shouldn’t play, probably aware hamstring injuries are famous for lingering, and the semifinals start in less than two weeks.
It isn’t just Messi’s frightening dominance, it’s that he plays every single game. Saturday was Barcelona’s first game this entire season Messi didn’t appear in.
CAN’T SCORE WITHOUT IT: While Messi’s club never takes the field without him; many of Barca’s players frequently do, together. Eight Barca players appeared for Spain in the Euro 2012 final victory over Italy, Barcelona is essentially the Spanish national team without Messi. And Spain’s possession as defense philosophy, and its phenomenal success, has never gotten its due.
Consider this absurd fact, which PSG is forced to. During its 10 knockout games at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Spain never conceded a single goal prior to penalty kicks. Barca has two away goals, PSG must score, an unenviable position against any team -- especially a team not unlike Spain.
BARCA’S WEAK BACK: "We're struggling with a lot of injuries at the back. (Carles) Puyol has had surgery, (Eric) Abidal is coming back from an extremely long and serious illness, Adriano's injured, and now (Javier) Mascherano is too. But we have enough quality in the squad to replace them, " Xavi said.
Marc Bartra, a 22-year-old La Masia product owning 10 league appearances in four years, started Saturday’s 5-0 win over Mallorca. Defensive mids Alex Song and Sergio Busquets are also imperfect options in central defense.
THE SKINNY: PSG played almost too well early in Paris, luring its players into Barca's game. Earning set pieces, grinding on Barca’s inexperience at the back, with Ibrahimovic muscling home a winner would be ideal. Matuidi’s suspended, so David Beckham may start again.
"With or without Messi, it is the same for us. To reach the semifinals, we still have to win." said PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Pedro’s energy would be welcomed back by the Blaugrana, especially without Messi. Cesc Fabregas recorded the first hat trick of his career Saturday, that and his familiarity with the false nine position may see him starting.
PSG must disrupt the Xavi-to-Iniesta metronome that is Barca’s finest defense. Les Parisiens have enough talent to win every third game against a weakened Barcelona. But is this that one?