After a break of more than two months, the Champions League returns on Tuesday night with the opening set of last-16 fixtures.
As far as Barcelona are concerned, little has changed since early December. Since the end of the group phase, Barca have won six and drawn two of their Primera Division games (they trail Real Madrid by a point) and have reached the Copa del Rey final. They remain, as they have done all season, favorites for the Champions League.
PSG must certainly be regretting failing to beat Ludogorets in their final group game – had they won that match Barca would not have been faced at this stage. However, deal with the Spaniards they must.
While facing Barca is always a fearsome task, a look at some historical stats will give PSG and their fans plenty of hope. The French champions have lost just one Champions League game at the Parc de Princes since the injection of Qatari money at the club (although that was against these opponents).
Barca’s away record in the knockout stages also suggests that a first-leg victory for the hosts is far from out of the question. In the last five seasons, Barca have won five, drawn two and lost six of their away knockout games in this competition with only three clean sheets kept in that period. Essentially they are not the all-conquering side they are made out to be and certainly in away legs can be vulnerable to Europe’s elite.
Whether you can count PSG in that bracket may be open to question, particularly given they currently sit behind Monaco in their domestic league, but this is a side who have regularly made the knockout phase and boast a number of quality players. Edinson Cavani may not stand up to scrutiny when put up against Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez but he’s enjoying a terrific season and profiting from the summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It’s now 33 goals in 31 games this season for the Uruguayan with six in six Champions League games showing he’s not simply a flat-track bully. It’s also his birthday on the day of the game for those who take anything from such facts. Cavani has bagged 11 in eight in the league since the group stage ended so should be full of confidence ahead of facing a defence which can be vulnerable at this level, as shown in the above stat.
Given their renowned front line, the defence is always going to be considered Barca’s weaker suit but recent injury problems have also added to concerns. Aleix Vidal has played at right-back recently but he’s out of this one, as is the reliable Javier Mascherano. Gerard Pique is set to return and that will be a boost to the talented but raw Samuel Umtiti, who looks the sort of defender who currently needs experience alongside him.
PSG, with 10 wins in their last 11, can make their mark against that defence but I’m not at all convinced that they can keep Barca out and get a win they will likely need ahead of the return in three weeks’ time. Thiago Motta’s absence through suspension hurts them on the defensive side of things too and with all this in mind, my favoured bet is for both teams to score which I’m surprised to see is available around the 7/10 mark. Only three sides have kept PSG out this season, while Barca have only failed to score on one occasion.
Yes, these first legs can be tight affairs but it’s not been PSG’s style to look to thwart opponents. Last season’s first legs with Chelsea and Manchester City were very open and although there’s been a change of coach, you have to doubt whether Unai Emery really thinks the best way of winning this tie is to try grab a 0-0 here.
- PSG have never kept a clean sheet against Barcelona (9 games, all competitions).
- PSG have lost only one of their last 42 home games in European competition (W26 D15), it came against … Barcelona in April 2015 in the Champions League quarter-finals (1-3).
- Barcelona have won nine of their last 11 games in the Champions League knockout stages (L2).
- Barcelona have progressed past the round of 16 in each of the last nine seasons, the longest current run in the competition.
- Edinson Cavani has scored six goals in as many games in the Champions League this season, which equals his best tally in the competition (6 in 2014/15). However, he’s never scored in 350 minutes of Champions League action against Barcelona.
- Lionel Messi scored 10 goals in the 2016/17 Champions League group stages, the second-most in the competition’s group phase after Cristiano Ronaldo’s 11 last season.
- Neymar has scored five goals in four games against PSG, his highest tally in the Champions League. He’s the top goal creator in this season’s competition with seven assists.