No-nonsense trip to France chasing Wembley dream

Posted by Francesc Tomas

The biggest competition in Europe is back with a bang: Barcelona will travel to the Parc des Princes Tuesday to face the ever-improving Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Considering the disastrous initial away match against AC Milan in the previous round, the Blaugrana would certainly be wrong to underestimate their hungry rivals. Full respect must be given to team that has invested millions of euros this season alone, attracting talent such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura.

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Despite Madrid-based media pointlessly trying to imply that Jose Mourinho has advised the PSG coaching staff on how to beat Barcelona, I am fully confident that experienced tactician Carlo Ancelotti is totally capable of preparing his squad for their biggest match of the season without any external help. In fact, this rumour feels more like a self-promotion attempt from the Portuguese manager's camp than an honest reflection of reality.

After many years of playing the most attractive football in world football before millions of fans, the undeniable truth is that everyone knows that the best way to beat Barcelona is ensuring Lionel Messi becomes isolated from key creative players such as Xavi or Andres Iniesta, slowing the game with constant aggressive tackles, then hurting the Catalans with direct counter-attacking runs or taking eventual set-piece chances - easier said than done, but definitely possible as Chelsea, Milan and even Celtic have shown in the recent past.

As a result, returning coach Tito Vilanova must ensure whatever players he fields for this crucial match understand the magnitude of the event and give their absolute best from the initial whistle as if their whole careers depended on it - which, to be honest, would be the case for some of the Blaugranas who may be in the starting eleven.

The sluggish attacking build-up and careless defensive attitude demonstrated against Celta a couple of days ago must be replaced with piercing, frantic ball-flow, meaningful yet controlled possessions, immaculate effectiveness in front of goal and aggressive, focused defending when dispossessed.

At this stage of the season, there is just no room for surprise or experiments within the Barcelona line-up and, personally, I believe the Tito-Roura duo must stick to the ideal eleven which has been largely responsible for taking the club this far in this competition and created the massive 13-point gap over Real Madrid at the top of La Liga with only nine domestic games left.

After his commanding performance for Spain in France just last week, I would trust Victor Valdes again on goal. My defensive line would include Dani Alves on the right (with a clear 'cover-those-gaps-behind-your-back' warning), then the improving Gerard Pique-Javier Mascherano partnership in the middle, plus the returning Jordi Alba as left-back.

The Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta triangle in midfield is really a no-brainer, as evidence shows how the three La Masia graduates continuously feed off and complement each other's creative game enormously. The poor performances of Cesc Fabregas and Thiago just a couple of days ago at Balaidos definitely support such a choice.

Personally, I would choose an attacking line were the lethal David Villa and mobile Alexis Sanchez supported the more central Lionel Messi from the wings, constantly rotating or throwing diagonal runs towards the middle in order to allow spaces for either Alves or Alba to overlap when possible.

Last, but certainly not least, I would consider the introduction of on-form Cristian Tello during the second half, if needed as his lightning speed and confident freshness could certainly be used as a not-so-secret weapon when the PSG defenders begin to feel tired of chasing after the ball for over an hour before their home crowd.

Barcelona are only four matches from a possible return to Wembley, the British home of Catalan football. The memory of eternal fighter Eric Abidal lifting the big-eared trophy in 2011, while now part of history, is still incredibly fresh in Cules' minds and fans would certainly explode with pride if a repeat at the iconic stadium in a couple of months' time came true.

A possible dream, but only an illusion at this stage nonetheless. It may sound as an old cliché but, honestly, the most important match on the club's way to London kicks off at the Parc des Princes in a few hours.

The chance of winning the club's fifth Champions League titles lies ahead, closer than ever before. Time to focus and make Cules proud!

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