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True-life stories put game in perspective

Walk around this effervescent city, listen to the people and the talk is of whether Lionel Messi's healed hamstring should still be risked against Paris St-Germain in an evenly-poised Champions League quarter-final second leg tonight.

The talk is also of Messi's Barcelona team-mate Eric Abidal fighting back from a life-threatening condition. A blast of perspective has filtered through the warm Mediterranean air.

Abidal, struggling with a fading liver, has been given new hope by a transplant donated from his cousin.

After almost a year lost to fear, treatment and rehab, the French full-back offered up a quick prayer in the Nou Camp dug-out last Saturday and then came on for Gerard Pique with 20 minutes remaining of the mauling of Mallorca.

Barcelona's coach Tito Vilanova was also back after his cancer treatment in New York. Life is currently more than a game for Barcelona.

HAMSTRING

The day began with Andres Iniesta sitting in a room at Ciutat Esportiva before training, facing question after question about Messi's hamstring.

He responded calmly to such enquiries like a senior doctor not wishing to rush a prognosis.

Iniesta denied that Barcelona are over-dependent on the player who has scored 43 of their 95 goals in the league this season.

"We know he is the No 1 when he plays but we all have to be leaders," he said.

"We are ready and prepared to win the game with or without Leo. He is a unique player for us, but from this squad someone always steps forward when it's necessary. We want to get to the final. We came close last year and to just fall short is what drives us on this time."

Cesc Fabregas will play in place of Messi, who trained with his team-mates yesterday, if the Argentinian starts on the bench, having just scored his first career hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Mallorca.

"We are lucky that Cesc is comfortable with whatever role he has," said Iniesta. "He has played in another country and become a very complete player."

The sight of Abidal playing again really moved Iniesta. "It's incredible to have Abidal playing with us again,'' said the Spaniard. "It's great for us, for him, for his family and for all those who face difficulties in their lives. He's a great example for all."

An hour later, a few kilometres away, PSG defender Maxwell was also reflecting emotionally on Abidal's return. The Brazilian knows the Frenchman well after spending three years here, winning two titles.

"To see Abidal play again was an immense joy,'' said Maxwell, speaking at the Nou Camp before heading outside for light training on his old stomping ground. "It is something extraordinary, both on a sporting and a human level."

After Maxwell spoke, a man who has always kept football in perspective took centre stage.

PSG's urbane coach Carlo Ancelotti batted away criticism of David Beckham's display in the first leg in Paris, particularly from 'L'Equipe', which gave the former England midfielder only three out of 10.

"Some criticised David,'' observed Ancelotti. "Some were happy with him. It doesn't matter. I was happy. He had a good game. So Beckham should be happy. When the manager is happy he has a lot of possibility to play."

Ancelotti defused any hint that the former Real Madrid player would be booed in the heart of Catalonia tonight.

"David has a very good image,'' said Ancelotti. "Everyone respects him."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic enthused about the Englishman, telling CNN that Beckham enhanced the credibility of the Qatari-backed project at PSG.

"I think he has been very important for us because in the situation that we are in now, the club has been changing from a normal club to a top club, and Beckham gives you some kind of confidence,'' Ibrahimovic said.

"He has the responsibility, on and off the pitch, to lead the way for these two months which is very important. He has big quality. He has a touch that I haven't seen many players have."

Beckham is likely to start tonight as PSG are missing Blaise Matuidi, coming up against Alex Song as Sergio Busquets could drop to centre-half with Javier Mascherano injured.

"Matuidi's suspension is a big blow for us but we have our resources and whoever plays in midfield will do so well,'' said Ancelotti.

SANGUINE

The man described as "my big, easy-going friend" by Paolo Maldini has always been sanguine. Ancelotti reacted with dignity to his dismissal by Chelsea.

He ignores constant speculation about Jose Mourinho and assorted others replacing him in Paris.

Ancelotti knows more pernicious problems can stalk people. His good friend from AC Milan, Stefano Borgonovo, suffers from Lou Gehrig's Disease.

So, Ancelotti does not get carried away by the clamour surrounding his glorious pursuit of silverware. He can still see what an achievement it is that PSG, a colt amongst thoroughbreds, have progressed this far in the Champions League.

"Everyone at PSG is happy to be here. It will be a beautiful evening. We are trying to build a fantastic future and it will be whether we win or not against Barcelona. If we don't, we try again next year.''

Keep going, keep things in perspective. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Irish Independent