• February 4, 2023

Magical Mbappe leads PSG to statement win as Barcelona’s malaise deepens

We’re looking for meaning – especially nowadays – and there was a lot to experience in an empty Camp Nou. Kylian MbappeHat trick – only the second Barca conceded at home in the Champions League Dynamo KievAndriy Shevchenko from 1997 – driven Paris St. Germain past Barcelona 4-1 and for some it will symbolize that he is taking the baton Lionel Messi.

This is nonsense. It is premature. Not just because Messi is Messi (and because that other guy in Turin might have something to say about it), but because Mbappe is writing his own story, one that hasn’t been defined by others. With Neymar (and Angel Di Maria) absent, he ran PSG with the calm of a veteran, the exuberance of a child, and most importantly, a rare blend of talent, athleticism and intelligence.

The image of him after the fourth goal – arms open like Cristo Redentor from Rio de Janeiro, nodding his head like a bobble head doll – embodies exactly what he brings with him. That means enough. The next decade is his.

As for Barca, the night has once again confirmed how deep rebuilding must lie ahead of us. There won’t be a Champions League pavement to clean up cracks (and maybe less Champions League revenue than expected). The seven straight wins in La Liga mean little. This is a team that has been emotionally razed to the ground. They’ll be back and mess around Marc-André ter Stegen, Ansu fati, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong (although maybe not Wednesday night version) and possibly one or two others. Messi? We just don’t know and won’t for a while. But the boil had to be stung and it happened against PSG.

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For many European superclubs, the Champions League knockout rounds are an early ritual of spring renewal. It’s a chance to forget about the domestic troubles and restart the season. Both clubs had a lot to do to address the past.

PSG, last year’s defeated finalists, are embroiled in a legitimate three-way dogfight for Le Championnat Small and Lyon. It’s not a role they’re used to as they have won seven of the last eight French championship titles. But beyond that, it was anything but pleasant in the Parc des Princes. They broke up with manager Thomas Tuchel on Christmas Eve and worried about things like Mbappe’s new contract and Neymar’s beach house parties.

That was, of course, positive compared to Barcelona’s last six months. From Messi’s Burofax on the resignation of President Josep Maria Bartomeu over terrible bankruptcy and financial collapse warnings to a crazy string of injuries that robbed her Gerard Pique (the “other” resident icon and Shakira-san), Fati (the apparent child prodigy) and jack of all trades Sergi RobertoIt was a campaign to be forgotten. And that’s before you dive into domestic events you see so far at La LIga, eight points behind third place Atletico Madrid (who played one game less).

Fleeing all this was motivation enough even before last week’s “Affaire Messi” when the respected French magazine France Football put the Barca star – who will become a free agent in 134 days – with a photoshopped PSG kit on its cover brought. In Catalonia, teeth are clenched and hair is pulled back.

With Kylian Mbappe’s hat-trick, PSG are close to the quarter-finals and Barcelona are about to end. Alex Caparros / UEFA via Getty Images

It’s easy to forget that with all of the glamor and vivid imagery set against the City of Lights, there’s a lot that really puts this PSG site to shame. For every social media sensation that started with a ready-made entourage and a nine-digit transfer fee (read: Neymar and Mbappe), there are also plenty of children, mills and second chancellors.

Moise Kean and Idrissa Gueye came from – with all due respect – Everton. Marco Verratti ended up as a teenager after a season in the Italian second division. Keylor Navas came in after losing the starting job real Madrid. Alessandro Florenzi is on loan from AS Romawhere he was undesirable. Layvin Kurzawa has been with the club for five years and has never played so many 20 league games. Leandro Paredes was a bust in Italy before reinventing itself to a point Russia.

Mbappe would rightly make the headlines. Not only because of his hat trick, but also because of his leadership and precocious skills, he shows up at the age of 22, especially when his favorite buddy Neymar is absent. But there were many supporters in his victory, many “We are your foot soldiers, lead us to the promised land.” That they would put so much of their trust speaks volumes: they know him best, they know what he offers.

On the other hand, Messi has worn Barcelona for the most part for the past 15 years. And he had started at a peak in 2021, with nine goals in ten games, all from the open game. When he caressed De Jong from the depths, Kurzawa received a gentle punishment that transformed Messi himself. Less than half an hour had passed. Without a word he turned to his teammates and said with covered eyes: “I got that.”

Just like he had done so many times in the past.

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But he did not do it. Because bad things always happen with this Barcelona team when the Messi ticker changes from superhuman to just outstanding. And PSG’s counter-speech was almost instant. A brilliant pass from Verratti, a first-time low cross, a somewhat lucky control that froze Clement Lenglet and Mbappe had kicked the ball into Ter Stegen’s net. Quick feet, quick mind, quick processing.

Kurzawa escaped again moments later Ousmane Dembele and forced Ter Stegen to make a world class stop. Pique, who had put his 34-year-old body back on the grid after a nearly three-month layoff, waved his arms and pleaded with his teammates. But there was a sense of premonition about what would happen in the second half.

Barca boss Ronald Koeman spent much of the time pestering his back line, ordering them to defend higher on the pitch and Ter Stegen worrying about the ball. But when you play with fear and low confidence and legs tired you get sucked back to your own goal. And it’s no coincidence that half PSG owned most of the property.

Ter Stegen had to perform another small miracle at the beginning of the second half after a Mbappe run – under this hood there is a lot of performance – and 20 minutes later PSG were in the lead. Paredes found Florenzi, Pique missed his clearance and the ball fell to 2-1 for Mbappe. And before Barca knew it, it was 3-1 and Kean somehow went invisible between Lenglet and De Jong to beat Ter Stegen.

At that point, the blow was both psychological and physical and practical. Mbappe made it four at break, which is important because a PSG defeat by four clear goals at Parc des Princes – which realistically is what they would need to go out – seems about as likely Cristiano Ronaldo Replaces Messi at Camp Nou next season.

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