Lionel Messi has dominated the last week's chit-chat and he'll continue to dominate it next week after coming off the bench to play a part in the goal which took Barcelona through to the semifinal of the Champions League.
Prior to the match, Tito Vilanova's men remained the bookmaker's favorites to be crowned European champions at Wembley in May. As they stuttered over the line against PSG, you were left wondering what actually merits placing them above Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund?
For an hour the money men from France made them toil.
As early as the third minute, Ezequiel Lavezzi stung the gloves of Victor Valdes. A minute later, only a dodgy touch and the covering of Pique stopped the same man racing clean through.
It was a trend which continued. Lucas Moura was next to test Valdes, but Lavezzi was guilty of missing the best chance—Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent him through but his poked finish was well saved by Barca's overworked 'keeper.
It wasn't just creating chances which Paris were proving better at—by halftime they'd had five attempts on target in comparison to Barcelona's none—but also at the battle. One of the more telling statistics was that the visitors had won 11 aerial duels in the first 45 minutes:
Enough of the impressive visitors; what was missing for La Blaugrana? A team who in recent seasons you half expected to still win the tournament even when they'd been knocked out.
They were obviously weakened defensively. Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol were both out injured and Adriano, who was preferred ahead of Marc Bartra to partner Pique, was booked, meaning he'll be suspended for the first leg of the semi-final—an even weaker back line which will surely be music to the ears of Barca's potential opponents.
Ahead of the back four though, minus Messi, Barcelona were at full strength. Xavi Hernandez did little different, in fact he completed all 96 if his passes, and Andres Iniesta looked dangerous in completing seven shots and three key passes (via WhoScored.com).
Cesc Fabregas replaced Messi in the forward three, but it was always unrealistic to expect anything like the performance he produced against Mallorca on Saturday. David Villa was lacking too. As journalist Dermot Corrigan commented, if it's been his role to create space for Messi, what's his role when the Argentinian is not about?
Dermot Corrigan @dermotmcorrigan
If Villa's job recently has been to distract defenders so that Messi has space to work in, Im not sure what his job is when Messi not there.4/10/2013, 7:44:31 PM
Come the 62nd minute, come Lionel Messi.
It's unfair to dismiss Barca as a poor team without the 25-year-old on the basis of one match—although no doubt there will be many who do after the result.
Something strange happens when Messi is on the pitch, and on Wednesday night, it was less footballing reasons, more psychological reasons which saw the tide turn in a tie which looked to be swinging towards the Eiffel Tower.
His introduction brought Barca to life, while seemingly sending PSG into a trance of worry over his whereabouts. Before he came on, the French side looked likely to steal a second goal. Once he entered, they looked happy to defend.
Of the four teams now left in the Champions League, Barcelona have scored the least goals. Of those 18 goals which they have scored, eight have been scored by Messi and two assisted by him. On top of that, you then have the goals he played a part in—like the ball to David Villa in the buildup to Pedro Rodriguez's crucial equalizer.
Camp Nou, with over 96,000 people crammed in, erupted at the mere sight of him warming up. When he replaced Fabregas, their excitement was clear, their energy—if not so much their atmosphere—not only electric, but catching.
He came on and everyone believed again. Players came out of their shells, it was like it was against AC Milan from minute one in the last round. David Villa said as much after the match (via @barcastuff):
"Messi is the best player in the world. His sole presence changes a game."
Those thoughts were echoed by Gerard Pique, who's played with the four-time Ballon d'Or winner since their days at La Masia:
Even PSG's manager Carlo Ancelotti was accepting of those reasons (via @barcastuff): "Messi gave his teammates more confidence, which is normal, he's a fantastic player, even if he's not totally fit."
Barcelona are a better team with Messi, nobody wants to argue that, but tonight it was in the heads of the other players that the game changed, rather than at the feet of little Leo.
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