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Messi answers call as Barca advances
Lionel Messi played less than 30 minutes of Barcelona's Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, but helped his side earn a 1-1 draw and squeak through to the semifinal round.
After a week of rumor and speculation about the seriousness of the thigh injury picked up while scoring in last week's 2-2 first leg in Paris, Messi began the return match on the bench. From there, the Argentine watched his fellow countryman Javier Pastore put the Parisians into a deserved lead early in the second half. With Barca crashing out of European football, Blaugrana manager Tito Vilanova risked asking his star man to change the game.
And he did.
The Argentine almost immediately helped create Pedro Rodriguez's equalizer, which sent the Catalans into the final four for the sixth consecutive season. Barca began as if wanting to show they were not - as had been suggested in local papers - too Messi-dependent. An early Xavi Hernandez free kick whistled past the post, but PSG survived the early onslaught and grew in confidence.
Barca’s attack looked blunt and their defense kept making mistakes. Stand-in center back Adriano Correia's header went straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who sent Ezequiel Lavezzi clear, but goalkeeper Victor Valdes saved the scoring chance with his feet. All of this transpired while Messi was seen biting his fingernails on the bench.
More PSG chances came and went. The best was a Lucas Moura header from an Ibrahimovic cross, which Valdes just about clawed away. Before half time, the Catalan netminder had already topped his total saves number for any game in any competition at Camp Nou this season.
There was less excitement at the other end, with Messi's replacement Cesc Fabregas quiet. PSG midfielders Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti were cleverly sealing the space Xavi Hernandez likes to pass into. Andres Iniesta's dribbles mesmerized the PSG defenders, but brought no real end product. At half time, visiting keeper Salvatore Sirigu had passed 45 untroubled minutes.
The second half began with strains of the French national anthem ringing around the Camp Nou, which the home fans tried and and failed to drown out with whistles. The visiting supporters were really celebrating just minutes later when Pastore and Ibrahimovic played a clever give and go in the center circle and the Argentine raced onto the return pass and shot. This time Valdes could do nothing and the net rippled.
Messi immediately began readying for action on the sideline. It could and should have been two when Ibrahimovic - playing superbly back at the ground he unceremoniously left after just one season as a Barcelona player - again fed Pastore, but this time the midfielder missed.
With 28 minutes left, Messi entered with Fabregas making way. The Camp Nou roof was almost lifted off by the deafening cheers. But the number 10’s first touch inside the PSG box was a poor one: a misguided attempt after Sirigu had punched out Iniesta’s shot from close range.
Barca’s second shot on target was the equalizer. Messi ran at the defense and picked out Villa's run. He laid the ball back to Pedro who slammed a superb left shot drive to the net. The 96,000 Catalan supporters could breathe again.
Visitors coach Carlo Ancelotti sent on David Beckham for the last ten minutes, with the Camp Nou loudly whistling the entrance of the man who turned them down for Real Madrid in 2003. They were soon calling for referee Bjorn Kuipers to end the game. A frantic finale saw Sirigu race forward to try for the goal that would have put them through.
But Kuipers three blasts came and the Camp Nou breathed a huge sigh of relief. Their side just about deserved to progress over the two legs. They were the better side in France, and again here - if only after Messi had entered. His mere presence lifted his own players, who knew he was always there to take possession and look after the ball. It also affected PSG, with even the usually unflappable Thiago Silva booked for a crude hack at his fellow South American.
The visitors left disappointed, but can take a lot from the two games. Ancelotti’s side have quality and experience with Ibrahimovic and Silva, and the dash and promise of Marco Verratti, Pastore, Moura and Blaise Matuidi - who was missed on Wednesday night. With the seemingly bottomless pockets of their Qatari owners, PSG will come again.
Barca’s focus is now more short term. They must improve on this to beat Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals. They will want Messi at full strength for both legs and could also do with Carles Puyol to solidify their defensive backline.
In Wednesday’s other quarterfinal match in Turin, Bayern Munich made easy work of Juventus claiming a 2-0 victory, giving the newly-crowned Bundesliga champions a dominating 4-0 aggregate win against an outmatched Juve side who lacked answers in attack.
Juventus, who were without central contributors Arturo Vidal and Stephan Lichsteiner due to suspension, faced an uphill challenge from the start against the four-time European champions. Needing no more than one goal to essentially seal their passage to the next round, Jupp Heynckes’ men accomplished their task with the same dominating efficiency during their 23rd Bundesliga title run by handing the Bianconeri faithful just their third defeat at their new ground.
Bayern also showcased their strong defensive capacity, denying the Serie A giants an early scoring opportunity when Mirko Vucinic, who bagged an impressive game-winning brace over the weekend, failed to break the first half deadlock against Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Later in the second half, Bayern put the game out of reach with Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizzaro ensuring the Bavarians their second consecutive Champions League final berth.
"We've hit our first major target, but if we want to crown the season we have to keep going," said Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness before the match. "We now want to turn a super season into a super plus season."
FOX Soccer’s Charles Ventura contributed to this report.
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