Mbappé’s star shines brightest as Barça and Messi fade to black
PSG look to have the right French wonderkid as Dembélé fluffs his lines
Gerard Pique can’t keep up with Kylian Mbappe. Photograph: Lluis Gene/Getty/AFP
Presnel Kimpembe slipped. 29 minutes had been played at the Camp Nou. Two minutes earlier Lionel Messi had put Barcelona ahead. Now, as the Paris Saint-Germain defence lurched open, he advanced a couple of steps and nudged the ball left to Ousmane Dembélé. He was 18 yards out with a clear shot in goal. The opportunity was on his stronger right foot. Destiny took a deep breath and considered its options.
Imagine if Dembélé had scored: Barcelona 2-0 up with Messi rampant. PSG, on the site of their bitterest trauma, in disarray. PSG, without Neymar – who remains, for better or worse, their leader. PSG, having suffered an unthinkable five defeats in Ligue 1 this season so they’re not even top of the table. Perhaps they would still have come back, but 2-0 in those circumstances would have felt like more than double 1-0.
But Dembélé didn’t score. He didn’t come close to scoring. He pushed the ball tamely at Keylor Navas. Three minutes later, Layvin Kurzawa found himself mystifyingly untended on the PSG left. Marco Verratti flicked on his cross and Kylian Mbappé jinked past a leaden-footed Clément Lenglet before slamming a shot in high at the near post for the first of a brilliant hat-trick. Destiny breathed out, nodded to itself, and set off decisively along the path it had chosen.
In those three minutes were bound up the psychodrama of two clubs whose stories seem never quite to have disentangled since the Remontada of March 2017, when Barcelona came from 4-0 down, beating PSG 6-1 in the second leg of their last-16 tie. Five months later, PSG smashed the world transfer record to sign Neymar, who had been instrumental in that win. It is a record that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon. The symbolism was obvious: money, in the end, will out.
But football is not – quite – so simple as that. In 2000, Barça had been stung by the loss of Luis Figo to Real Madrid into a wasteful spree that almost sunk the club. Were lessons learned? Of course they weren’t. Almost half the €222m they got for Neymar was splurged on Dembélé. Three and a half seasons on, he has scored 14 league goals for the club. Whose fault that is can be debated, and he is still only 23, but the signing isn’t close to having worked yet. (At least he is still at the club: the other half of the Neymar cash went on Philippe Coutinho, whose last act in a Barcelona Champions League game was to score twice against them for Bayern Munich in last season’s 8-2 defeat).
The other consequence of losing Neymar was a renewed determination at Barcelona that they couldn’t lose Messi, and so he was promptly signed to an extraordinary five-year deal. Perhaps he was in some way worth it, but when you’re €1.2bn in debt, paying a 33-year-old €555m over four years seems an extravagance they could do without. Tuesday was a classic performance of Messi in a big game these days: there were flickers and glimmers, a couple of dangerous balls over the top as he wandered deep into midfield, one of which brought the penalty, but weakened by time and fate he feels a peripheral genius.
He must look at Mbappé, initially signed by PSG six days after Barca got Dembélé, who is six months older, and think that Barça got the wrong French wonderkid. Twice Messi has played against Mbappé, in Kazan at the World Cup and on Tuesday, and on both occasions he has witnessed an exemplary display of the art of the centre-forward. The first goal was down to his quick feet and balance, the second to his poacher’s instinct of where the ball may drop and the third to a run perfectly timed so he could decelerate and open his body for a curling shot just as Julian Draxler laid the ball off. Each finish was unerring, two hit with great power and one with great precision and finesse.
Perhaps there are a handful of others who can match his tactical sense and technical ability, but none combine it with such pace and strength, such graceful inevitability. There had been some mumblings this season that his development had stalled; those can be pushed to one side now.
The shot of him powering forward with Gerard Piqué clutching his shirt and being dragged along behind, like tin cans on a string behind a bridal car, felt emblematic not just of his superiority but of PSG surging away from Barcelona. The 4-1 win was by far their best performance in a Champions League knockout game and, although Mbappé was at the heart of that, he was not the only factor.
PSG were disciplined and compact, the use of Verratti in an advanced midfield role giving their press an obvious focus and pushing Mbappé higher up the pitch. For that Mauricio Pochettino has to take great credit. He changed the mentality at Tottenham, and winning 4-1 in the stadium where they lost 6-1 must stiffen the belief of a club that has often lacked it in critical moments.
Everything circles back to the Remontada and its ramifications, perhaps even the one great doubt that remains for this PSG. Can they play at that level, can Mbappé be so inspirationally brilliant, can they have that level of cohesion and tactical intelligence when Neymar returns? - Guardian