The Champions League is an “obsession” Mauricio Pochettino said as he prepares to lead Paris Saint-Germain in the competition for the first time, against the team he was offered the chance to manage in January 2020, and the player he still might coach next season.
The possibility of Lionel Messi joining PSG when his Barcelona contract expires has dominated the buildup but now the game takes over, with the former Tottenham manager aware of its significance for the Qatari project. Finalists last season, PSG are yet to win the competition despite huge spending. In the three previous years they failed to progress beyond this, the last-16 stage. That is the challenge before Pochettino, the reason he was chosen to replace Thomas Tuchel.
For Barcelona, this is the competition that has evaded them since 2015, that “beautiful and sought-after trophy,” as Messi called it – and one in which they have suffered humiliating exits, conceding three in Turin, three in Rome, four in Liverpool and eight against Bayern in Lisbon.
“When we signed for PSG, you could start to feel already that the Champions League game would be important. It’s our clear objective to win the Champions League and we understand the responsibility and the excitement,” Pochettino said. “When I talk about obsession, I mean that those of us in football talk about passion and that’s an obsession too. Sometimes you don’t know which but you love this sport desperately, thinking about it constantly, 24 hours a day, and I see that obsession as a positive thing: a passion so great that it’s overflowing, on the verge of obsession.
“We’re not here to impose, we’re here to collaborate and try to fulfil the club’s objectives. These are two teams who aspire to win the Champions League. Sadly, only one of them can get through to the next round.”
If PSG are to get there, they must do so without Neymar and Ángel Di María, Barcelona defender Jordi Alba saying: “I’m not going to lie to you: it’s better for players like Ney not to play for the opposition. And Di María too, who is a great player.”
Barcelona also have significant absentees, with Philippe Coutinho, Sergi Roberto and Ansu Fati all missing. Ronald Koeman said that central defender Ronald Araújo would not make it either, but Gerard Piqué may be available after almost three months out injured. “He’s ok, he has been training with the team for four or five days. The feeling is good but we have one more day to decide whether to include him on the list,” Koeman said.
Messi will be there and he was a presence in the press room too, even with PSG allowing few questions from the Catalan media following accusations from Koeman that they had shown a “lack of respect” to Barcelona in the pursuit of their captain. Leandro Paredes had previously welcomed the prospect of Messi coming; this time he said: “A lot has been said about the Messi issue and I prefer not to say anything; I prefer to think about tomorrow’s game.”
“If I knew what Messi wasn’t going to do I wouldn’t tell you anyway,” Alba said. “Today he is 100% committed to Barcelona. Beyond that, hopefully we can win a trophy and then let Leo decide at the end of the season. People talk a lot but Leo has the final say. Whatever decision he makes he will have thought about carefully.
“I’m a much, much better player when Leo is on the pitch than when he is not. And that goes for all of us. We’d be fooling ourselves if we said the team was better without him. We’re better with him. God willing, for the benefit of all of us, he stays for years.”