Barcelona and PSG are rightly hailing the decisive impact a footballing force of nature in the form of Lionel Messi made in Wednesday night’s match, but the Catalan side should not let the uncomfortable questions about their self-belief that arose from their performance to be buried under the adulation. Given the success Spain have had in fielding Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield berths behind a roaming Cesc Fabregas in the false nine position, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Barcelona’s struggles against PSG with this rejigged line-up had something to do with a lack of confidence as well as the lack of Messi. Fluid passing football requires a certain assurance in decision-making, a confidence in the pass that is about to be executed, and the way Sergio Busquets constantly ceded the ball to PSG’s midfield and Gerard Pique passed it straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggests this was uncharacteristically missing from otherwise accomplished performers.
Undoubtedly, Messi’s arrival injected a level of unique technical excellence that could be seen in his mazy run which drew and confounded PSG’s defenders before allowing David Villa and Pedro to find the inches of space to create which had been denied them all night, but there were fleeting glimpses that suggested Barcelona had not given a full demonstration of their abilities sans Messi on the night. Interspersed among their struggles to sustain possession, repel PSG and create attacks, was a period at the very beginning of the game when they demonstrated their trademark slick interplay in moving threateningly towards the PSG goal, another fluid play later in the half and then a clear opening to score from inside the PSG penalty area that Dani Alves squandered just prior to the arrival of Messi, after going behind had shook off the shackles of fear that had paralysed them and led to their first period of exerted pressure in the match.
Notwithstanding the technical excellence of PSG’s attack, or the way in which Messi in his false 9 position and the rest of the team have become nearly inseparable, Barcelona still missed a golden opportunity to build additional reserves of confidence in his absence and come up with an alternative tactical plan. The sense that the shadow of Messi has at times threatened to put the lights out on the Barcelona careers of those playing immediately around him – including David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas – could have been snuffed out and, as unique a talent as Messi is, the emboldening of these players could only have served to give Barcelona more outlets for attack in a possible match-up against defensively tight-knit teams such as Bayern and Real who will seek to isolate and suffocate Messi. Instead of grasping one of these opportunities, Barcelona have limped into the top four carrying the sense that they are the most vulnerable, lopsided team of those that remain in the competition.
That said, they still have Messi and where Messi plays, anything in football is possible.