Nearly four years on from the infamous La Remontada, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain renew on-the-pitch hostilities in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 battle at Camp Nou on Tuesday evening.
Notwithstanding the importance of progressing to the quarter-finals for both sides, Barcelona and PSG have already locked horns off the pitch over soon-to-be free agent Lionel Messi, and all eyes will be on the Argentine this week.
The hosts warmed up for this game with a comfortable 5-1 thrashing of Alaves in La Liga, and while PSG also picked up a vital victory in the league at the weekend, the manner of their 2-1 triumph over Nice was not as dominant.
Lionel Messi equalled yet another club record for Barcelona against Alaves on Saturday night, and the talismanic Argentine did not even have to find the back of the net to etch his name into another chapter of the Blaugrana’s history books.
The wantaway 33-year-old pulled on the Barcelona jersey for the 505th time in the Spanish top flight – matching the previous record held by illustrious midfield maestro Xavi – and in typical Messi fashion, he marked the occasion with two spectacular goals as Ronald Koeman’s side eased to a 5-1 victory, with Trincao (2) and Junior Firpo also getting on the scoresheet.
As speculation over Messi’s future continues to dominate talk behind the scenes, the Argentine showed PSG a glimpse of what could be theirs if they play their cards right over the next few months, but unlike Manchester City – who are believed to be going about their business quietly – numerous members of PSG’s playing and non-playing staff have made no secret of their desire to bring Messi to the French capital for the 2021-22 campaign.
Such outspoken tactics have reportedly irked Barcelona, who will be even more determined to humble their opponents in midweek – and potentially convince Messi that they are once again capable of challenging for the biggest prize of them all – and the hosts’ recent form suggests that they are perfectly capable of gaining the upper hand before next month’s trip to the Parc des Princes.
Victory over Alaves ensured that Barcelona immediately returned to winning ways after a crushing Copa del Rey first-leg defeat to Sevilla in the semi-finals – although they will have the chance to rectify that 2-0 loss on home soil on March 3 – and Saturday’s triumph marked their seventh straight success in the Spanish top flight as they rose to second in the rankings.
As well as going 12 games unbeaten in La Liga, Koeman’s side have lost just two of their last 18 matches across all competitions and enjoyed a near-perfect group-stage campaign in the Champions League, but a worse head-to-head goal tally with Juventus meant that the Catalans – who sit joint-second in the goalscoring charts with 16 so far – progressed as runners-up from Group G with 15 points from a possible 18.
Barcelona have not failed to progress past the round of 16 since their enthralling tie with Liverpool in the 2006-07 campaign, with the Merseysiders advancing courtesy of away goals, and La Blaugrana boast a remarkable record against French sides in this competition too, as no team from the nation has ever come away from a Champions League tie at Camp Nou with a victory to their name.
The only French club to get the better of Barcelona at Camp Nou was Metz in the 1984-85 Cup Winners’ Cup, and Barcelona will be desperate to consign last year’s humiliating quarter-final exit to Bayern Munich to history as they gear up for their first meeting with PSG on Tuesday, where another 6-1 thrashing certainly would not go amiss with the impassioned Blaugrana faithful.
Unsurprisingly, Barcelona became the first team ever in the Champions League to overturn a four-goal deficit during that astonishing night at Camp Nou on March 8, 2017. Then-PSG manager Unai Emery witnessed his side hit Barca for four without reply in the first leg, but one of the most memorable and controversial matches of the 21st century culminated in the Blaugrana winning 6-5 on aggregate. However, one of the heroes of that night will not be reuniting with his former Catalan teammates this time around.
Mauricio Pochettino came under fire for his decision to field Neymar in the Coupe de France meeting with Caen earlier this month, and it was a move that certainly backfired on the Argentinian manager as his silky winger has now been ruled out for a number of weeks with an adductor injury.
Whether the former Catalan star will be able to take to the field for the second leg remains to be seen, but there is no chance of Neymar – who has been very vocal about his desire to link up with Messi again – stepping back out onto the Camp Nou turf on Tuesday in order to show Barcelona what they are missing.
The PSG infirmary has been well-occupied for a large portion of the season and is starting to fill up again at the worst possible time for Pochettino, who is taking charge of his first Champions League game for the Ligue 1 champions after Thomas Tuchel guided them to a first-placed finish in a daunting Group H.
Les Parisiens’ most recent European outing against Istanbul Basaksehir was overshadowed by a racism scandal involving a fourth official – after which the players walked off the pitch in a show of solidarity – but the teams returned the next night to finish what they had started, and Neymar’s hat-trick helped propel his team to top spot and a 5-1 win on the night.
The Brazilian superstar is one of four players who lead the way in the top scorer charts with six to his name – level with Juventus’ Alvaro Morata, Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford – but the goalscoring burden will now weigh heavily on the shoulders of Kylian Mbappe, who struck the other two against Baseksehir last time out.
Despite their mounting injury problems, PSG will not be dethroned without a fight in Ligue 1 and victory over Nice represented their eighth win from nine matches across all competitions, but they were made to work for the three points as Julian Draxler and Moise Kean – the latter hitting double figures for the season – struck either side of a Rony Lopes leveller at the Parc des Princes.
PSG will feel that there is no reason why they cannot go one better this season after losing to Bayern Munich in the 2019-20 final – Pochettino is relatively young, hungry and has already guided Tottenham Hotspur to the showpiece event – and the visitors travel to Camp Nou having kept three clean sheets in their last four away matches, but they have not beaten a Spanish side in a Champions League knockout game since 2013.
By advancing to the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition for a ninth season on the trot, PSG have matched the previous record for a French club – with Lyon doing so between the 2003-04 and 2011-12 campaigns – but they are now coming up against a Barcelona side who have lost just one of their last 33 knockout games on home soil, winning 25 of them.
A behind-closed-doors Champions League is something that players are unlikely to ever get used to, especially considering what the atmosphere in Catalonia would normally be like for a tie like this, but there is much more than just a spot in the quarter-finals at stake between Barcelona and PSG, as Messi could potentially be swayed one way or the other depending on which European giant makes the last eight.