Futures of Unai Emery and Luis Enrique in focus as PSG face Barcelona
Mid-February is probably a bit early for it, but the Champions League round-of-16 clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona has a definite Thunderdome feel. Two men enter -- PSG boss Unai Emery and Barca's Luis Enrique -- and one leaves, whether now or at the end of the season.
Never mind that Emery has been in the job for less than nine months or that Luis Enrique has won eight of the 10 competitions he has entered in just over two-and-a-half years. Both men know they are swimming around their goldfish bowls with looming hands waiting for an excuse to scoop them out.
That's what happens when you're in charge of a European juggernaut and are either 1) somewhere other than first place or 2) struggling to convince the commentariat that you're on an upward trajectory.
Emery's PSG are second in Ligue 1, which might not seem disastrous until you consider that, at the same stage last season under Laurent Blanc, they had 14 more points.
Blanc was derided for being tactically unsophisticated, relying too much on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and failing to get past the Champions League quarterfinals. All of that was true to some degree, but at least he delivered domestically, winning eight of nine French trophies in three years.
PSG's high command believed that, without Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani would finally shine as an attacking terminus and, without Blanc, the team would be tactically savvier and more professional. They got the first part right -- Cavani has a whopping 33 goals thus far, more than Ibrahimovic at this point last year -- but the second less so.
The egos in the dressing room are still there, while some big guns, such as Angel Di Maria, are misfiring, and most of the summer signings -- Grzegorz Krychowiak, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jese -- have been busts. So much so that the club turned to the January transfer market for some reinforcements, picking up the gifted if somewhat star-crossed Julian Draxler from Wolfsburg and Goncalo Guedes from Benfica.
Those were the two biggest European transfers of the window, at a combined fee of some $80 million. Whether it was a case of throwing good money after bad remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Barcelona's malaise is more difficult to pin down. Two years ago, they won the treble, but last season, they had to make do with a domestic double. To those accustomed to years of success, the defining moment of 2015-16 was the Champions League quarterfinal exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid.
A weary Barca wilted against the intensity of Diego Simeone's crew, which is why Luis Enrique added depth and rotation to his squad. A year ago, only 12 players started at least one-third of the club's league games; this season to date, 17 have done so. The idea is to keep the main men fresh for the stretch run, and time will tell whether that will work.
The downside has been some rather un-Barcelona-like performances, particularly at the back and in midfield, where the absences of veteran stalwarts Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta have weighed heavily.
Between them, the pair have more than a thousand games under their belts, and while the team continued to grind out results in their absence, it simply felt different with guys such as Arda Turan and Denis Suarez in the middle of the park.
Domestically, Barcelona are just one point behind Real Madrid, but their eternal rivals have played two fewer league games, and when they meet in April, it will be at the Bernabeu.
Nobody at Camp Nou wants to give up on La Liga just yet, and Barca are also in the final of the Spanish Cup, but a strong showing in the Champions' League is a must. It has been 11 years since Barca exited the competition before the quarterfinals stage, and you can pay a high price for such shortcomings.
Those are the stakes for the managers. Emery can buy himself time, and Luis Enrique can buy confidence in his rotation policy. But beyond that, there is no shortage of subplots, one of which is the clash of two Uruguayan strikers, born three weeks apart in 1987 in Salto, just across the river from Argentina.
Since the summer of 2010, Cavani, who turns 30 on the day of the game, has scored 218 goals, while Luis Suarez has managed 203. Suarez is Uruguay's all-time leading scorer; Cavani is second. Each has a Sao Paulo-born sidekick -- Lucas Moura for PSG and Neymar for Barcelona -- although, while the latter is an established superstar biding his time to take the baton from Lionel Messi, the former remains on the cusp of greatness.
It's also the showdown of unorthodox -- and sometimes overmatched -- German goalkeepers, Kevin Trapp and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. It's the veteran, often underappreciated, warriors in central defence -- Thiago Silva on one side, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano on the other -- and it's Thiago Motta once again crossing swords with Busquets, seven years after the latter's infamous "peek." And it's PSG's Qatari owners against the club they sponsor, at least for a few more months.
Oh, yeah. And then there's Messi. There's no symmetry to be drawn here because he has no peers on the PSG side. He probably doesn't care very much for individual awards, and we're only in February, but knowing what voters are like, a stumble at this stage could well preclude his chances of winning a sixth Ballon d'Or.
Cristiano Ronaldo has won three of the past four, drawing within one of Messi; you wonder if there's at least one household in suburban Madrid where you'll hear the sound of champagne being uncorked if PSG upend Barcelona.
But to conclude, we return to the men on the respective benches. Two Spaniards for whom -- in this era of instant results, outsized expectations and managerial churn -- this Champions League clash will help make or break a season and possibly determine their future.
Above all, this Valentine's Day encounter is about Unai Emery and Luis Enrique.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.