Barcelona got a satisfying result in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal, drawing Paris Saint-Germain 2-2 in France, but it came at a price. Javier Mascherano went down with a knee injury, and Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, had to leave the game at halftime after injuring his right hamstring. Barça's weaknesses were laid bare.
For eight days leading up to the second leg, the world wondered if Messi would be ready. And for eight days, the world wondered if Barcelona, the undisputed kings of the sport just a few years ago, still had the quality throughout to muster a win without their star. Just before the kick, we had our answer. Messi wouldn’t start, but he’d be dressed on the bench.
Tactically, both clubs made only minor changes from the first leg in Paris. PSG needed a win or a high-scoring draw to advance, and manager Carlo Ancelotti stuck with a narrow 4-4-1-1, so that the French side would stay compact against Barça’s superior passing. They’d attack with direct, counterattacking play, driving balls into their target man, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who would then combine with his second striker, Ezequiel Lavezzi, or his wingers, Javier Pastore and young Brazilian Lucas Moura. They'd need to score, but not at the expense of letting Barça run wild.
Barcelona stayed with their proven 4-3-3, but manager Tito Vilanova made a few changes to his injury-plagued side. He replaced makeshift centerback Mascherano (who was covering for an injured Carles Puyol) with left back reserve Adriano. Many expected the Barcelona boss to turn to defensive midfielder Alex Song or even a young Marc Bartra, but he chose Adriano, likely for his pace and experience. And spearheading the Barça attack as the "False 9" was Cesc Fabregas, who scored a hat trick in the role over the weekend, albeit against Mallorca, a much weaker La Liga side.
As the game started off, PSG seemed a bit nervy under the Camp Nou lights, while Barcelona, acutely aware of Messi's absence, pressed the attack. Midfielder Andrés Iniesta and left winger Pedro got to the end line a couple of times, but the Parisians settled into the counterattack that had been so effective against their smaller opponents in the first matchup, and created chances of their own.
As always, Barcelona dominated possession, but they just weren't whole. As in the Messi-less second half of their first match with PSG, the Spanish side lacked a focal point of attack. They kept the ball tidily, slowly squeezing PSG's defense back agains the shadow of their own goal posts, but there was no menace. Fabregas drifted into the midfield where he's more comfortable, disappearing at times. And when PSG won the ball, their direct passes from their central midfielders and right back Christophe Jallet to Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi and Moura were unchallenged, and therefore dangerous, because Barcelona had so little pressure on the ball.
The reason why the False 9, or lone, withdrawn forward, is so effective when Messi plays is the same reason why it's so ineffective when Cesc was playing the role against PSG's defense. The center forward must fulfill two roles: drop into holes between the opposing midfield and defense, acting as the creative link between your midfield and attacking wingers, and get forward and score goals, as well. He's doing the work of two players, facilitator and finisher, sometimes in the same possession. Many managers employ the tactic after watching Barcelona (and Francesco Totti at AS Roma before them) win with it, but there simply aren't many players in the world that can pull off the offensive demands of the False 9 and also pressure the centerbacks effectively without the ball. That Messi can handle the role, when Fabregas—one of the world's best players in his own right—can't is incredible. That Messi can shine as a False 9, carrying virtually the entire offensive burden between his scoring and playmaking, almost defies reason.
On the other side of the pitch, Ibrahimovic, Moura and Lavezzi looked comfortable, and enjoyed time and space when they received driven balls over Barcelona's pressing midfield. The trio, as well as Pastore on the left, looked like they'd have to break though eventually. Ibrahimovic was abusing Barça centerbacks Gerard Pique and Adriano in the air, his club's best chance coming midway through the first half when he dropped into the midfield and collected a second ball headed down by Lavezzi. It seemed to take the defense by surprise, and Ibrahimovic, who is widely feared yet still underrated as a passer, carried the ball at the Barcelona back four without any pressure. He split three defenders with a through ball to Lavezzi, who was behind the defense and in on goal, but wasted his chance from inside the box. Minutes later, Ibrahimovic was freed on the left side of the box after central midfielder Marco Verratti chipped a cheeky ball through two Barcelona defenders. Ibrahimovic crossed the ball to Moura on the far post, who jumped over left back Jordi Alba to powerfully head the ball. Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés, however, was there to parry it past the post.
The second half started the way the first ended, with Barcelona aimlessly, meekly controlling the ball, and PSG countering with real pace and menace. Pastore livened up after half, and Ibrahimovic had terrorized the defense all game, winning second balls for his side and combining with his supporting players.
Five minutes into the half, Ibrahimovic collected a long ball onto his chest, then laid off a short pass to left winger Pastore. Pastore, being tracked by Adriano, played it quickly around the defender to Ibrahimovic. After passing it, Pastore kept sprinting, outpacing Adriano and right back Dani Alves, who had been caught out of position. Ibrahimovic took one touch, hesitated for the gap, then played a ball through Alves, Adriano, and Pique, right into Pastore's path. The winger carried the ball 40 yards before coolly chipping it over Valdés to put the visitors up, 1-1.
Pastore's goal sunk the stadium. Unless Barcelona could even the score, the Frenchmen would be through to the Champions League semifinal. The crowd was flat, Barça was listless, and it didn't look like the home side would or even could score against the Parisians without Messi at the helm.
If anything, PSG scored too soon. As soon as his team went behind, Messi began to warm up. The crowd roared, and it became deafening when he checked in for Fabregas in the 62nd minute. Barcelona's players, some of whom didn't even look like they wanted to be on the pitch, perked up. With Messi's appearance, the whole game changed before he even touched the ball. It took him nine minutes.
Messi, playing even deeper than Fabregas had, collected the ball about 40 yards from the PSG goal. With Verratti on his back, he pressed forward, then knocked the ball through defensive midfielder's Thiago Motta's legs to create space. With a probing forward pass, he split three defenders and found David Villa in the box. Villa laid it off to an awaiting Pedro at the top of the area, who pounded it with his first touch just inside the far post to bring Barça even, 1-1.
The goal was enough. Messi, badly hobbled, clearly a shadow of his usual self, was enough. PSG floundered for the final 20 minutes, unsure, as Barcelona killed the game with possession. When the final whistle blew, PSG collapsed as Barcelona and their fans rejoiced. Through Messi's heroics, the Catalan giants reached the Champions League semis for the sixth straight year.
No one knows if Messi will be fully healthy against his next CL opponent, be it Dortmund or Bayern or hated rival Real Madrid. The draw comes tomorrow. The first legs begin in two weeks. There's a feeling, though, after last night's escape, that the opponent matters less than Messi's fitness. We've known for a while that Barça was no longer unbeatable, but following Messi's absence and two strong PSG performances, the club's defensive frailty and absolute creative dependence on their star have been put on display. They're no longer invincible, nowhere close. But if Messi's on the pitch, they may not have to be.