PARIS (AP) — Paris Saint-Germain winger Lucas jokes that the only way to stop Lionel Messi is “to tie him up.”
The Brazilian can afford to laugh for he doesn’t have to defend against Messi on Tuesday night, when Barcelona arrives for the first leg of their Champions League match.
With a quarterfinal place at stake, PSG has only itself to blame for landing Barcelona after finishing second in its group behind Arsenal.
PSG’s quest for European success has developed a frustrating pattern, ending at the quarterfinals in the past four seasons.
That led to coach Laurent Blanc being fired and replaced by Unai Emery.
Yet PSG still faces the prospect of doing worse than last year unless it finds a way past Barcelona. It feels like now or never for a PSG side enjoying massive investment from Qatari backers, QSI, since their takeover in June 2011.
“That’s what is missing for us,” Lucas told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “We need to win something in Europe.”
Last season’s elimination against Manchester City cost Blanc his job despite back-to-back domestic trebles and a hefty new contract signed just months before. It showed just how ruthless PSG’s owners are in their desire to join Europe’s elite.
“(Losing to City) was difficult to take because we knew we could win,” Lucas told the AP. “I don’t know what was missing.”
Losing to Barcelona in the 2013 and 2015 quarterfinals was less unexpected. Knocking out the Catalan giant this time would send out a strong message.
Easier said than done against Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez — a dream attack mixing skill, subtlety, cunning, speed, power, aggression and devastating finishing.
“No team is unbeatable, but of course for me they are the favorites,” Lucas said. “They are the best team in the world, you have to respect them.”
Messi is playing some of the best football of his career — though that seems to happen most seasons.
If it is possible for a five-time Golden Ball winner to get even better, then Messi is finding a way at the age of 29. The Argentine magician is conjuring up brilliant free kicks, either curling them into top corner with his unique casual brilliance or with power and precision.
Another weapon in an already huge armory that has produced nearly 500 goals for club and 57 for country.
Messi is the Champions League’s top scorer this season with 10 goals in five games, having missed one.
Asked how to stop Messi, Lucas laughs.
“Legally?” he asks. “For me it’s impossible to stop him. You have to tie him up.”
More seriously, Lucas says, there is no point trying to man-mark a player whose mind works even faster than his feet, and who is as elusive as a ghost.
“The tactic is preventing the ball getting to him,” Lucas said. “You must be very, very organized.”
Then there’s Suarez — who has scored in each of his last six games — and Neymar.
The 24-year-old Lucas, who has 34 caps for Brazil, fills with pride when speaking about his countryman Neymar.
“It’s great for our country to see him doing well there, and me doing well here,” said Lucas, who is enjoying his fifth — and best — season with PSG. “He’s a great example. I’m happy for him, for everything he’s doing there and in the national team as well.”
Neymar, who already has 50 goals for Brazil, is touted as Messi’s eventual successor by many observers.
“I don’t think he can be like Messi, because every player has their own style and their own history,” Lucas said. “But I think that, after Messi, he can become a great, great player as well and write a great history for Barcelona.”
Asked if Barcelona has weaknesses, Lucas agrees but doesn’t say what they are.
The solution for PSG against Barcelona could be attack as a best form of defense.
Neither of Barcelona’s goalkeepers — Dutchman Jasper Cillessen and German Marc-Andre ter Stegen — is commanding in the air. Some defenders are vulnerable, which puts too much pressure on reliable stalwarts Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
France center half Samuel Umtiti and international teammate Lucas Digne (left back) are in their first seasons with Barcelona. Veteran Jeremy Mathieu has experience — five seasons with Valencia and this is his third with Barca — but he is easy to turn and error-prone.
Barcelona struggles against high balls on corners and free kicks — which just happens to be PSG’s strong point.
PSG has outstanding headers of the ball in center forward Edinson Cavani — who has 33 goals this season — and captain Thiago Silva.
“That can be a weapon,” Lucas said. “We have to make the most of that.”
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire
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