Messi nears his peak to lift Barcelona, PSG rolls to CL quarterfinals

Wednesday March 12th, 2014

Barcelona star Lionel Messi evaded Manchester City's Vincent Kompany and his teammates, scoring the decisive goal in the teams' Champions League last 16 second leg.
Manu Fernandez/AP

There was controversy in Barcelona, but it made little difference to the outcome as the hosts beat Manchester City 2-1 to go through to the Champions League quarterfinals by a 4-1 aggregate. In Paris, meanwhile, PSG eased through, with a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen completing a 6-1 aggregate margin.

These were the highlights:

Player of the Day: Lionel Messi, Barcelona

Messi said it would take him 10 games to return to his best form after returning from his hamstring injury in January. This was his 15th start since then, and the signs are that, despite the strange attacks of vomiting that occasionally strike him, he is almost there.

A couple of little bursts, shuffles round opponents, offered reminders that he can still do things with apparently no effort that are beyond the reach of virtually all others. Early in the second half, as Messi drifted through a couple of challenges and struck a post, with City apparently unable to do anything to stop him other than watch and hope he missed, England's all-time leading goalscorer Gary Lineker was moved to Tweet that "Messi makes me realise (sic) how sh** I was... [he] produces more pieces of exceptional skill in a single game than I managed in an entire career."

And it was, of course, Messi who got the goal that ended all City hope, running on to Cesc Fabregas's ball as it bobbled between Joleon Lescott's legs and, characteristically, neglecting his right foot to score with the outside of his left.

Moment of the Day: Victor Valdes' save on Samir Nasri

City had had the early breaks. Neymar had missed a decent chance. Xavi had hit a shot straight into the body of Joe Hart. Vincent Kompany had hacked one off the line. City had flicked with menace without producing anything clear-cut. Then Yaya Toure looped a ball into the box for David Silva who, running from right to left, backheeled a volley back to the edge of the box for Samir Nasri.

The ball sat up perfectly for the France international - far more kindly than it had in the League Cup final 10 days ago when he scored. He had space. If he'd scored, if City had taken the lead, if City had the whole of the second half to score once, perhaps Barca would have wilted, perhaps the momentum would have carried the English side against a team whose confidence has been hit by three defeats in its last six games.

If Nasri hit the shot first time, as he had to. If he made good contact. A yard either side and he had a chance. Four feet either side and he would have scored. But his shot was straight at Victor Valdes, the danger passed, and so -- realistically -- did City's chance.

Major Takeaways of the Day

Manuel Pellegrini was seated in the directors' box, banned from the touchline because of his disparaging remarks about the referee Jonas Eriksson - his Swedishness in particular - in the first leg. He could have few complaints about the refereeing in the second leg, though, as Stephane Lannoy, a French referee who took charge of a Euro 2012 semifinal (despite having a shocker in the Brazil - Ivory Coast game at the 2010 World Cup), gave two major early decisions City's way.

First Messi flicked a dropping ball away from Lescott and was taken down by the defender just inside the box but no penalty was given, then Jordi Alba was wrongly called offside before he crossed for Neymar to fire into the net. Add in a clear tug from Lescott on Messi that escaped a yellow card and Barca could feel pretty hard done by at halftime.

Lannoy evened it up in the second half, though, denying City a clear penalty when Edin Dzeko was clearly tripped by Gerard Pique and then showing Pablo Zabaleta a second yellow card for his protests. Referees, whatever country they come from, sometimes make mistakes; the most successful sides tend to deal with it. Lannoy, thankfully, has been overlooked for this year's World Cup.

The other major difference from the first leg for City was the absence of the suspended Martin Demichelis, a player who has drawn derision recently. It's true he has made a number of mistakes, but as so often happens he seems to have become a universal scapegoat. His replacement, Lescott, made a handful of fine tackles after his early escapes, but it was his mistake, as Cesc Fabregas's through ball bobbled between his legs, that allowed Barcelona to take the lead. Not for the first time this season, you wondered why City hadn't invested in another top-class center back, rather than being left to rely on a 33-year-old and a player it contemplated selling in January.

As for PSG's routine victory over Leverkusen, such is the wealth of creative Argentinian talent that two of PSG's stars are often overlooked. Javier Pastore, after a disappointing first season in which he struggled to live up to the hype of being the club's first mega-signing, is unlikely to make the Argentina squad for the World Cup, yet he is back and playing happily and well in the PSG midfield. Ezequiel Lavezzi, meanwhile, would be a starting striker for all but three or four nations in the world: he combines pace, energy and positional intelligence with the ability to finish, as he proved with the first-time shot that put PSG 2-1 up.

How far can PSG and Barcelona go?

The victory over Bayer Leverkusen told us next to nothing about PSG and everything about the gulf that exists in Germany between Bayern Munich and the rest (with Borussia Dortmund, if it is free of injuries, floating somewhere in between). Nor does the fact that PSG is eight points clear at the top of the French league reveal much about its quality.

What is true, though, is that this is a well-balanced side with two outstanding center backs in Marquinhos and Thiago Silva and a formidable front three in Edinson Cavani, Lavezzi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It may be that Yohan Cabaye, a player who can both create and destroy, has enhanced PSG's flexibility in midfield, but the real strength of PSG will only be revealed when it is tested.

Three weeks ago, Jose Mourinho labeled this the worst Barcelona side in years. He may well be right, but that isn't as damning as it would be of other teams. This is merely a very, very good team rather than one of the greatest of all time. There were exchanges between Messi, Neymar and Andres Iniesta that were mesmerizing, but the old questions remain about the defense: Dzeko drew a fine save from Valdes, and Zabaleta wasted a good opportunity early in the second half as Barca struggled to cope with crosses, even before Kompany's late goal.

Such was Barca's discomfort when City upped the pace in the early part of the second half that you wonder whether Bayern - as technically adept as Barca but more physically robust - might slice it apart as it did last year, though reports of Barca's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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