Barcelona players attend a training session on Monday, ahead of their Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain. Courtesy: Barcelona FC website
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman insists his resurgent team can still compete with the strongest in Europe as they prepare to take on a Paris Saint-Germain side missing Neymar in their Champions League last 16, first leg on Tuesday.
“I don’t see other teams who are much better than Barcelona, but I think it’s not good if you are changing a lot of things in the team, if you are playing with young players, to expect that we will win the Champions League,” Koeman told media ahead of Tuesday’s game at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona remain a club in crisis off the field, mired in debt and with a presidential election due next month, but playing results have turned around since they ended their Champions League group-stage campaign with a 3-0 home loss to Juventus in December.
Saturday’s 5-1 win over Alaves made it 10 wins and two draws in their last 12 Liga outings.
Lionel Messi has scored 11 goals in 10 appearances in that time, while Koeman continues to incorporate young players into his line-up.
“We still have a good team. The team is doing better, the team is playing good, on a high level, physically the team is on a high level and we still have fantastic players,” Koeman said.
“That means we can beat everyone. That’s what we like to show, that we can compete with the best teams in Europe.”
Clear underdogs when the draw was made in December and paired them with PSG, Barcelona may now even have the edge as their opponents arrive in Catalonia without the injured Neymar and Angel di Maria.
But Koeman warned: “You never know how a team will react to being without such an important player like Neymar. I hope that in a couple of weeks (the return leg is on March 10) everyone will be there and we can see who is the best team.”
The Dutchman also said he was “very hopeful” Messi would stay at the club amid speculation over the Argentine’s future beyond this season, when his contract expires. He continues to be linked to PSG as well as Manchester City.
“I am a much better player when Leo is on the field than when he is not. With Leo we are much better and much stronger,” said full-back Jordi Alba.
“We want him to stay at Barca for many more years, but it is Leo’s decision and we will have to respect whatever decision he takes.”
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Tuesday’s game at the Camp Nou will be the ninth between the sides in the competition in eight years. History is on Barcelona’s side, and in the era of the super club, going out in the first knockout round of Europe’s elite competition is potentially disastrous.
PSG’s exit at the hands of Barcelona at this stage in 2017 was certainly that, with an astonishing 6-1 second-leg demolition wiping out a 4-0 first-leg advantage. But the Qatar-owned club responded to that humiliation in stunning fashion, by buying the architect of their downfall, paying Neymar’s release clause for a world record fee of 222 million euros ($264m at the time) in a move that caused consternation in the Catalan capital.
PSG’s hopes of gaining revenge over Barcelona on the pitch this time have been hit by the injury to Neymar which rules the Brazilian out of the trip to his old home, and could rule him out of the second leg on March 10 too.
However, the hope is that Pochettino can get the better of his old foes.
When it came to changing coach midway through this season, Pochettino was a natural choice to replace the sacked Thomas Tuchel in many respects. He is a former PSG captain, and was a free agent having previously done an excellent job at Tottenham Hotspur.
Yet his relationship with Barcelona -- or lack of it -- also works in the Argentine’s favour.
The 48-year-old spent a large chunk of his playing career in Catalonia, but did so wearing the blue and white of Barcelona’s city rivals Espanyol. He was part of two Copa del Rey winning sides at Espanyol, in 2000 and 2006.
Pochettino then began his coaching career when he took over a struggling Espanyol team in early 2009. He quickly revived their fortunes and oversaw a 2-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Catalan derby at the Camp Nou.
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