Barcelona are getting ready to renew old rivalries against PSG in the Champions League round-of-16, with a clash at the Camp Nou.
When the draw was made nobody gave the Blaugrana a hope in hell to progress as they were struggling in La Liga and, after an admittedly impressive first five games in their group, got smacked around 0-3 at home by Juventus, losing both top spot and their seven-year unbeaten run at home to the Italians.
However, in the months that have passed since then, Barcelona have found themselves again. Sort of. There’s still a way for them to go but what has emerged, especially in 2021, is that the Blaugrana are fun to watch again in a way they haven’t been since 2017.
Despite the recent upturn in form, which includes seven straight La Liga wins since the turn of the year, Sky Bet have them at 16/1 to go all the way and win the Champions League. PSG meanwhile are fourth-favourites to go one better than last season and lift the trophy at 11/1. (18+ only. Odds correct at time of publication. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware.)
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The return of fun!
For two and a half years under Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona were functional. Occasionally they produced moments of exhilarating football but by and large it was stodgy defensive play lit up by individual excellence from Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.
Ronald Koeman appeared to be following a similar path during his early months in the dugout, with his 4-2-3-1 shape being clunky and morose. However, around the start of December he began to experiment with other formations, landing on a return to the classic 4-3-3.
This return to 4-3-3 has coincided with the young players in the squad taking on bigger roles. Pedri is now fundamental to the midfield, acting as the link between the midfield and attack. Despite just turning 18 he’s already forged an incredible relationship with Messi and you can tell the Argentine enjoys playing with the kid.
Frenkie de Jong has become a box-to-box phenom, already taking more shots, creating more big chances, making more assists and scoring more goals than he did in all of last season. Hell, even Riqui Puig is playing!
Oscar Mingueza has added depth and versatility to a defence that needed it, Sergino Dest promises much when he can rid himself of niggling injuries too. Ronald Araujo has emerged as a true colossus at the heart of defence and PSG will be pleased that he is unlikely to be fit for the first-leg. Even if Gerard Pique might return, he lacks the mobility that Araujo possesses and that could be key with Kylian Mbappe around.
Sadly Ansu Fati has been out injured but Dembele has been a regular presence in the XI, adding pace, width and thrust in abundance. Recently even his back-up Francisco Trincao has begun to kick on and deliver goals too.
Then there’s Messi. What more can be said about the best player in the world? He’s deliriously good to watch, even when he’s misfiring in front of goal. Despite his misfires he’s currently second in the Pichichi race with 15 goals; and as always he’s a sensational dribbler and playmaker with 86 take-ons completed and 12 big chances created (both league-highs). While his goalscoring is more hit-and-miss his playmaking is still peerless. And more than that, he’s playing with a smile on his face.
Antoine Griezmann remains a problem, with the Frenchman lacking the dynamism to be a creative force but also the presence to get in the box and score goals consistently. He’s had a purple patch in 2021 and has six goals and six assists in La Liga, but his nine big chances missed is second only to Karim Benzema, and when his club needed him most against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey he was nowhere to be seen.
Will he pull another disappearing act against PSG or will the motivation of performing against a French side drive him on? We’ll have to wait and see but Griezmann’s goalscoring presence could decide the tie. Barcelona desperately need him to perform.
Results aside, Barcelona are fun to watch. The bristling energy of youth surrounding old stagers like Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba has led them to a league-best 49 goals and 53 big chances created (one could argue that there’d be more of a title race if they had taken more of those big chances).
Can they beat PSG? We’ll have to wait and see, but anything’s possible. After all, no one would predict that someone as joyless as Ronald Koeman would return joy to the Camp Nou, but that’s the beauty of football, right?