To Messi or not to Messi? That is the question

Posted by Francesc Tomas

The search for Wembley glory continues: Barcelona will face Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou in the return leg of the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Wednesday in a highly anticipated clash that potentially could make or break the host's season.

Having comfortably led La Liga for far too many weeks for fans to be too hyped-up about it, there is simply no question that the prospect of lifting the club's fifth Orejona (big-eared) trophy in London has become Barca's ultimate ambition, the icing on the cake.

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It is obvious that the main talking point ahead of the game is whether Lionel Messi will be available for selection. Personally, I am against forcing the four-time Ballon d'Or winner on to the team unless doctors are fully confident he has successfully completed the required recovery process.

As the Argentine wizard knows full well from adversity experienced during the earlier part of his professional career, muscular injuries can turn quickly from bad to worse unless enough time is given for them to heal.

Sure, La Pulga clearly poses Barcelona's main goal-scoring threat, and it would be ideal to have him back to face the French millionaires, but it would be unreasonable to expect him to play every second of the game after returning from injury.

The improved performances of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez against Mallorca on Sunday also suggest the Blaugranas actually can win comfortably without their top scorer, which reassured doubters of the undeniable quality of the squad as a whole.

While I expect Les Parisiens' back line to be much more aggressive, better organized and more focused than Mallorca's, the fact the Fabregas-Sanchez partnership functioned so well can only be understood as a step in the right direction, a glimmer of hope.

Personally, I would field a starting 11 without Messi, leaving him on the bench and only bring him on as a substitute if strictly necessary. All reasonable precautions must be taken to ensure La Pulga's long-term well-being, as he still has many more glorious years and hopefully hundreds of more goals to score for the Blaugrana.

The defensive conundrum

As it seems to happen at the crucial stages of the season, Barcelona is struggling to consistently field a reliable back line. Ongoing injuries, overall bad luck or, quite bluntly, poor decision-making when building the squad are all factors that may have influenced the current situation. The only truth is that the decisive match against PSG is only hours away and a solution for the "who-will-partner-with-Pique" puzzle is urgently needed.

Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano are both unavailable, which makes the selection process far more difficult. Adriano's expected recovery makes him an option, but I feel placing a full back in the central position is a step too desperate.

Alex Song has performed well as a defensive midfielder when needed, but looked out of place when slotted into the back line. Dropping Sergio Busquets farther back would work, but the team would then miss his unparalleled ability to connect with more creative players in midfield. Eric Abidal has recovered impressively from major surgery, but after more than a year away from competitive football, the PSG match may come a bit too soon for him to be considered as a starter.

As a result, my preferred choice would be trusting upcoming youngster Marc Bartra once again after he proved his worth against Mallorca in La Liga. The Spanish under-21 international has excelled through the La Masia youth system as a central defender, and the only way for him to improve further is by getting playing time in his preferred position at the highest level -- the time is now.

The Blaugrana board complains to UEFA

As I explained in more detail here, the 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes in the first leg of the tie was a decent result for Barcelona, considering the team faced one of the most heavily invested squads in world football in front of an incredibly dedicated 48,000-strong crowd.

Having said that, referee Wolfgang Stark's inability to see that Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored from a blatantly clear offside position or even apply basic principles of football (allowing the match to continue despite two injured players being in obvious need of medical assistance) forced Barcelona to officially complain to UEFA about his performance.

Although it is true that the Catalans have tried to remain quiet whenever obvious mistakes were made -- especially during the Pep Guardiola era -- the club believes unacceptable blunders have damaged the team's chances in recent times. Unfortunately, its only remaining option was to make its discontent obvious to those who need to hear.

From a personal point of view, I still feel some things are better left unsaid at the institutional level (especially when the evidence is so blatantly obvious that everyone could see what happened), but understand that the directors are within their rights to highlight mistakes and demand respect for a club that in their eyes has perhaps kept silent about the matter for too long.

Final Word

The Catalans are only three matches from reaching yet another European final, and considering how difficult the journey has been so far, another push toward glory feels necessary. The possibility of improving on an already successful year is too precious to let go.

Barcelona has enough talent to build on the draw in Paris and qualify for the Champions League semifinals without Messi.

Considering all of the points explained above, I would field Victor Valdes on goal; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Bartra and Jordi Alba on defense; a midfield with the classic Busquets-Xavi Hernandez-Andres Iniesta triangle, and the highly capable David Villa-Fabregas-Sanchez front line.


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