When Barcelona steps on the Camp Nou pitch tomorrow against Paris Saint-Germain they might have Lionel Messi ... and they might not. The club has unsurprisingly been tight lipped on the injury status of their star, but the signs are pointing to Messi being on the bench, rather than the starting lineup.
All the headlines surrounding this Champions League quarterfinal second leg are centerting around the health of Barcelona's biggest star and while it will affect the game, the real story of the match is at the other end of the pitch where Barcelona's wounded defense must deal with PSG's attack.
There's no doubt that Messi not being in the lineup immediately changes the dynamics of the match and should be viewed as a positive for PSG. Anytime you remove a player the stature of Messi, it changes things dramatically. Even on a team with the depth of talent that Barca has, taking away Messi does affect them and puts pressure on other players to step up.
Many other teams would be borderline crippled by losing a player lik Messi but we saw over the weekend that Barcelona are capable of dominating a match even without him in the lineup. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were brilliant as they took apart the Mallorca defense, combining on all five of Barca's goals. It was an amazing performance but it doesn't mean we can assume things will be the same on Wednesday.
Why? Mallorca are not Paris Saint-Germain ... obviously.
Mallorca are the 19th placed team in La Liga and are in serous relegation danger. They're conceded the most goals in the league (63, tied with Deportivo La Coruńa), so they're not an example of defensive excellence. PSG's defense is far more formidable, even if they were broken down twice by Barca in the first leg.
If Cesc and Alexis can replicate the movement and passing we saw on Saturday, there might not be a defense in the world that can contain them. It really was that good, but we have to admit that their performance was amplified by Mallorca's inability to slow anyone down effectively.
We're also assuming that Tito Vilanova goes with Cesc in a center forward-esque role and keeps Alexis out on the right wing. There's a chance that Pedro Rodriguez makes his return in place of Alexis, but his play on Saturday makes a good case for him getting another start. David Villa will probably return as well, replacing Cristian Tello on the left wing. As great as Messi is, any combination of those attacking players would trouble virtually any team in the world.
Despite all that, we know Messi makes Barcelona better and not having him hurts the Blaugrana while boosting PSG. However, the result from the first leg might be enough to negate any advantage.
Barca scored two away goals and should be content to just sit in possession and be patient. Barca's defensive issues, which I'll get to in a moment, make it even more likely that they could utilize a more cautious approach.
A scoreless draw sends them to the semifinals, so while they'll still be looking to score, there won't be an urgency to do so. PSG have to score at least one goal to advance and more importantly, they need to prevent Barca for putting the ball in the net.
Therein lies the problem for PSG.
When you have to attack Barcelona, it creates space at the back for them to exploit. Even without Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta will be more than capable of taking advantage of that. With PSG only needing a single goal (if they can get a shutout) they won't have to attack from the opening whistle but the longer the match remains scoreless, the more they'll have to push forward.
Carlo Ancelotti knows this, of course, and will likely instruct his team to play in a similar manner to the first leg. Sit back without "parking the bus" and look to strike on the counter attack. This is the smart move and if you ignore Barca's two goals, it worked fairly well in Paris. Barcelona are certainly susceptible to those tactics and without Carles Puyol or Javier Mascherano available, there's even more concern about how strong the Barca back line will be.
That's where PSG's true advantage lies. With Marc Bartra, Alex Song or Sergio Busquets starting alongside Gerard Piqué, Zlatan Ibrahmivoic and Ezequiel Lavezzi will be like sharks on their way to a feeding frenzy. This game was never going to be about how Barcelona's attack dealt with not having Messi, it's going to be about the home team's defense and their ability to shut down PSG's attack.
PSG will get chances on goal, they will generate offense, no matter how much Barca tries to sit on the ball. This means that while there is pressure firmly on PSG's shoulders as they have to score to advance, there's just as much pressure on Barcelona's defense to prevent that goal.
It's a prime example of how a situation and tactics can become more important than the best player in the world being out of a match. It might sound crazy but it's true, because even if Messi overcomes his hamstring issue and starts tomorrow, it won't change the fundamental truths about this match.