"It was the best of draws, it was the worst of draws," is perhaps how Charles Dickens would have summed up Paris Saint-Germain FC's pairing with FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
Within the club itself, no one seemed to be able to make up their mind either. Coach Carlo Ancelotti called it "a good test", while sporting director Leonardo took the Dickensian line: "It was the worst possible draw." The knee-jerk reaction is to go along with the Brazilian, but though they are in the last eight for the first time since 1995, PSG will go into the game as underdogs with plenty of bite.
General consensus has it that the advantage lies with the team which hosts the second leg – in this case, Barça. Zlatan Ibrahimović will likely be available to make a return to his former club, though even his suspension for the game at the Parc des Princes may not be as damaging to PSG as it may initially seem.
Ibrahimović contributed just two of his team's 14 group stage goals, while tactically it could be a blessing in disguise. "Everyone knows Zlatan isn't a player for the counterattack," said Ancelotti recently, and PSG have often looked at their most formidable when hitting teams on the break this season. Barça's possession-based game seems well-suited to PSG's strengths, and perhaps Ancelotti will be tempted to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 for that first leg to boost his team's ability to recover possession.
Ezequiel Lavezzi – PSG's top European scorer with five – Lucas and Jérémy Ménez in particular are all blessed with jet-heeled propulsion and an eye for goal which could trouble their Catalan opponents and give PSG an advantage to take to Camp Nou.
The problem, as AC Milan found out, is stopping yourself being outscored by Lionel Messi and Co. PSG had the best defensive record in the group stage – just as they do in Ligue 1 – and much of that is down to Thiago Silva. Rated by many as the world's best defender, the Brazilian's nickname – O Monstro (The Monster) – says it all. Though Barça are more than a one-man team, a subdued Messi would be a boon, and if anyone can keep him quiet – or even quiet-ish – it's the PSG captain.
Then there's Ancelotti himself. A UEFA Champions League winner as a player and coach, the Italian has experience in spades of the biggest stage of all. He also has a happy knack of turning a last-eight place into one in the last four: on five of his previous seven occasions at this stage of the competition, Ancelotti has steered his team safely into the semi-finals. Do not expect the former Chelsea FC manager to be fazed by the stakes or the occasion.
Of course, should Barcelona prove capable of consistently reproducing their round of 16 second-leg display, then few, if any, will be able to stop them. PSG will also have to display fewer nerves and more courage than they did against Valencia CF in the second leg in the previous round, but they have every reason to harbour – as Dickens may have put it – great expectations.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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