■ Champions League: Paris Saint-Germain v Barcelona, Game 1, Tuesday, 11.45pm UAE
For Unai Emery, the cherry-and-blue stripes of the Barcelona jersey must sometimes look like a skull and crossbones.
Emery, lauded as one of the most diligent and insightful coaches of his generation, and with big trophies to show for it, has suffered more than most against the brilliant Barca sides of the past decade. On Tuesday, in his 24th attempt, the Spaniard seeks what would be just his second ever win against the Catalan club.
There is no shame in finishing second best to Barca, just as long as it does not become a phobia. Keen to avoid that, Paris Saint-Germain have hired Emery with a brief to galvanise the ambitious French club’s Uefa Champions League campaigns, which have stubbornly fallen short of the medal positions in the five years since they came under the generous patronage of their Qatari backers.
Too often it has been Barcelona, who PSG host in Paris, who have curtailed those campaigns.
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PSG have met Barcelona six times in the past three years and won just once. Emery, meanwhile, has selected 23 teams in the past 10 years to stymie Barcelona. In all his attempts – first as a young strategist with Almeria, then in charge of Valencia, briefly in command of Spartak Moscow, and most recently with Sevilla – he has just the one victory. Barcelona have beaten Emery’s teams 16 times in the 23 encounters.
The good news? He has been getting closer. Last May, Barcelona needed extra time to score the only two goals of Spain’s Copa del Rey final against Emery’s Sevilla in Madrid, at the end of a season that had begun with a European Super Cup final between the two clubs that finished 5-4 in Barca’s favour. Emery’s Sevilla beat Barcelona 2-1 at home in the Primera Liga in 2015/16. They lost by the same narrow score at Camp Nou in the reverse fixture.
The immediate background to Tuesday night’s collision in Paris tilts in the Spanish champions’ favour. Twice the past three seasons, Barcelona have eliminated PSG at the quarter-final stage. That PSG then went on to stroll to their domestic title both seasons was some consolation, though it was not enough.
When they combined a fifth Ligue 1 title on the trot with a fourth successive defeat at the last-eight stage of the Champions League last year, they were looking for a new manager to replace Laurent Blanc.
Emery looked a good fit for his single-mindedness and his fine antennae for symptoms of complacency in his playing staff.
What Emery found, perhaps to the surprise of his bosses, was that the French championship has suddenly become tougher for the holders. It is rare for PSG to not be on top of Ligue 1 in the middle of February. But this season, PSG trail Monaco just as Barca trail Real Madrid in Spain.
Emery’s task was to remould PSG both for a sturdier assault on Europe and for a future without their departed totem Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede’s impact as a goalscorer has been replicated by Edinson Cavani, and they come into Tuesday’s fixture with nine victories from their last 10 outings in domestic football.
Barcelona’s blips, the cause of their deficit in the defence of their Spanish title, are also receding in their rear-view mirror.
Ominously, each of their fabled attacking trio – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar – were on target in Saturday’s 6-0 thrashing at Alaves. Messi has nine goals from 12 outings so far in 2017.
Messi is a well-known thorn in Emery’s side. In the only win the manager ever recorded over Barca, Messi was absent. In the catalogue of defeats and the odd draw, Messi has registered 25 goals in 21 games against Emery teams.
No wonder that Lucas Moura, PSG’s winger, responded to the question of how to stop Messi, with the dry: “We’ll just have to tie him up.”
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