Diminished by injuries and suspensions, Paris Saint-Germain renew hostilities with Barcelona on Wednesday as the sides clash at the Parc des Princes in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
PSG have been eliminated in the last eight on away goals in each of the last two seasons, including losing to Barcelona in 2013.
As they look to finally make it back to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite club competition for the first time in 20 years, the side from the French capital could hardly be in better form.
A point clear at the top of Ligue 1, they are on course to win an unprecedented clean sweep of the domestic honours after mercilessly crushing Bastia 4-0 in the final of the League Cup at the weekend.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice in that game, having netted a hat-trick in last midweek’s 4-1 French Cup semi-final defeat of Saint-Etienne to reach a century of goals for the club.
The Swede has scored 13 times in his last seven matches for club and country, but he will miss the meeting with one of his former clubs due to suspension after being sent off in the second leg of the last-16 win over Chelsea last month.
Ibrahimovic is also about to begin a four-game domestic ban, so PSG must get used to being without their talisman, who has 28 goals in total this season.
“He was good, very good,” said Blanc of Ibrahimovic’s display in the League Cup final. “His objective now is the second leg against Barcelona in 10 days. He will get some rest.”
Blanc must also do without Marco Verratti due to suspension, while David Luiz and Thiago Motta have hamstring injuries, although the return to fitness of the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Lucas does provide some consolation.
In any case, the absence of Ibrahimovic may not prove as crucial as it appears at first glance. After all, he was injured when Paris beat Barcelona 3-2 at the Parc des Princes in a thrilling group-stage game in September.
He was back by the time the sides met at the Camp Nou in December and even scored in that game, but could not prevent Barcelona winning 3-1 on the night.
And it was with 10 men following the Swede’s sending-off that the French champions rallied to eliminate Chelsea on away goals on a remarkable evening at Stamford Bridge.
That game felt like something of a coming of age for PSG in Europe, but the test that awaits them against Barcelona cannot be underestimated, even if they are unbeaten in 33 European home games stretching back almost nine years.
“It will be very difficult but it could be extraordinary,” reasoned midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
“We have already shown that we can compete against them and even beat them. We will need to be at 150 percent, even with all the absences. We will give everything.”
– Neymar frustration –
In contrast to their hosts, Barcelona come into their eighth consecutive quarter-final in the competition with only one notable player missing in the shape of right-back Dani Alves, who is suspended.
Luis Enrique’s side are top of La Liga but not everything is rosy for the Catalans just now after they threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Sevilla on Saturday, despite a 45th goal of the season for Lionel Messi.
Neymar also scored in that game but could not hide his disgust later on when he was substituted and the Brazilian will now be eager to get back on the field against PSG after netting in both meetings between the sides in the group stage.
“We must make as few mistakes as possible and not concede,” warned another of Barcelona’s Brazilians, Adriano. “They have quality players who need only the slightest opportunity to score goals. They are very dangerous on the break.”