Where would Barcelona be without Lionel Messi? Wednesday was almost the night we found out.
Without Messi for 62 minutes, Barcelona struggled to assert their familiar dominance and fell behind Paris Saint-Germain in their own stadium. With him, Barca quickly fought back and held on for a nervy 1-1 draw Wednesday night in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal.
Neither the result nor the performance were exactly what Barca are known for. Messi, meanwhile, didn't score even after his dramatic introduction. But with an injured superstar in their ranks, Barca simply won't care.
After Pedro's decisive goal secured a draw at the Camp Nou, the Catalans are headed for their sixth straight semifinal appearance. That's the only thing that matters.
As promised, the team sheets prompted plenty of talking points ahead of kickoff. Most notably, Cesc Fabregas reprised his starting spot in Messi's "false nine" role. Messi had suffered a hamstring twinge in last week's first leg, but without him at the weekend, Barca blew away Mallorca 5-0 with Cesc scoring his first career hat trick.
At the back, Tito Vilanova—himself a recent returnee from a serious health scare—opted for Adriano to partner Gerard Pique in the absence of Javier Mascherano (injured and suspended) and Carles Puyol (merely injured).
Almost immediately, Barcelona were nearly ahead. The hosts won a free kick on the left side just outside the box, and Xavi curled his shot just outside the far post. A frantic exchange ensued, as both sides created danger. Ezequiel Lavezzi made a foray into Barca's box and Andres Iniesta tried an audacious chip on PSG's goal from long distance.
Not intimidated by the occasion, PSG kept up the pace. Lucas Moura saw one shot saved and another fly over the bar, and Lavezzi added another effort off target within the first 20 minutes.
Barcelona, dominating possession as usual, saw a half-chance pass with Pedro firing into the side netting.
The visitors carved out the clearest opening yet in the 24th minute. A flowing team move fell to Lavezzi, whose low effort was pushed away by Victor Valdes. Moments later, Lucas headed at Valdes after being picked out by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's deep cross.
For PSG, coming so close so often must have been both encouraging and discouraging.
Against a team as talented as Barca, creating chances is itself a difficult task. Then again, when playing a ruthless team like them, it's imperative to convert those chances.
Regardless, Barca were far from their best in the first half, uncharacteristically failing to register a shot on target. Whether or not that had anything to do with Messi's absence, it certainly had plenty to do with PSG.
To be sure, Barca without Messi were much more left-sided than usual, as this tweet from Paul Carr of ESPN illustrates. They were also inept in duels to an almost baffling extent (per Opta Sports):
19 - Barca have won just 19% of their duels, this is their worst rate in the CL since Opta starting collecting CL data in 04/05. Restrained.— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) April 10, 2013
Barca's first-half deficiencies turned into an outright deficit on 50 minutes. PSG broke forward and Ibrahimovic played an angled pass through Barcelona's defense for Javier Pastore to run onto. Pastore took a few patient touches to set up a chip over the onrushing Valdes and into the net.
It was the goal PSG's mega-money makeover has been built to produce: top-class players creating a top-class strike against the best opposition on the biggest stage. And it was the goal that would have sent them to the semifinals.
Its architect was Ibrahimovic, once an outcast at the Camp Nou and always a rogue genius on the pitch.
It's been coming. Fine work from Zlatan, calm finish from Pastore. Multi-million pound goal in the making.— Will Tidey (@willtidey) April 10, 2013
Within seconds, Messi stirred on Barca's bench, only to remain there for a dozen more minutes. First, though, PSG had another chance, with Pastore mishitting his shot wildly. On the other end, Dani Alves blasted a chance into the stands seconds before Messi finally entered in the 62nd minute.
Marc Bartra entered with him, replacing Adriano in the middle of defense, and Barcelona improved quickly.
Andres Iniesta surged into the box before Alex intervened and Pique's shot was blocked seconds later. Salvatore Sirigu then pushed away Iniesta's curling shot after a one-two with David Villa.
The equalizer arrived in the 71st minute, and although Messi wasn't the scorer, he did figure prominently. The Argentine slotted a pass to Villa in the box and Villa picked out Pedro with a simple but devastating back-pass. Pedro rifled his first-time, left-footed shot into the net at the far post.
Vintage Messi-Villa-Pedro connection. Haven't seen the three of them combine like that in a while.— Ravi Hiranand (@RaviCNN) April 10, 2013
Afterwards, PSG were left to wonder what could have been. With several chances in either half, the Ligue 1 leaders had the opportunity and the ability to pull off the upset. But when Messi—even a slightly less-than-fit Messi at that—finally entered, the complexion of the contest changed for good.
Messi, it would seem, needs less than 30 minutes and full health to influence matches at the highest level.