By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Flair players such as Neymar need more protection from referees so they can continue to excite fans, Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said ahead of Tuesday's Champions League clash with Paris St Germain which the Brazilian will miss due to injury.
PSG's Neymar hurt his thigh following a tackle in last week's French Cup tie at Caen and is being deprived of a reunion with his former club Barca as he misses a last-16 match for the third time in four seasons since moving to Paris in 2017.
"We have to protect players like Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because they make us all enjoy the game more," Koeman told a news conference on Monday ahead of the last-16 first leg at the Camp Nou.
"Referees need to protect them, even though this is a contact sport. The best matches are the ones when the best players in the world are on the pitch."
Barcelona defender Jordi Alba, however, said he was happy to not face his former team mate, who scored 105 goals and lifted 10 trophies in four seasons with the Catalans.
"It's a very important loss and it's better for us when players like him don't get to play for your opponents," he said.
"(Angel) Di Maria is also a big loss for them but they have other big players of a similar level. And we also have some important players missing," he added referring to the Argetnine winger who also has a thigh problem.
PSG can count on Kylian Mbappe, top scorer in Ligue 1 with 16 goals, but Koeman said he would not encourage his side to man-mark the French striker.
The Paris side reached the Champions League final for the first time last year but lost 1-0 to Bayern Munich, while Barca will be playing their first knockout match since their humiliating 8-2 defeat by Bayern in last year's quarter-finals.
Koeman conceded that Barcelona's chances of winning the competition this season were slim but also said no-one should dismiss his side, who have won seven La Liga matches in a row and thrashed Alaves 5-1 in their last outing.
"We have a lot of young players and so we can't expect to win the Champions League but we're in great form and we can beat anyone," he said.
"I don't think many teams are much better than Barca."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ken Ferris)