Kylian Mbappe celebrates completing his hat-trick
The talk should this time not be of comebacks, or returns, but ascendance. That’s how good Kylian Mbappe’s performance was. It was a night that will surely be looked back on as one where he proclaimed himself as the new best player in the world. He destroyed Barcelona, and completely overshadowed Lionel Messi, with a hat-trick that fired a 4-1 win for Paris Saint-Germain that also felt like a definitive passing of the torch.
The history of this fixture means that there will be a certain caution about the end result after two legs, and the return in Parc des Princes, but this was all about the future.
It wasn’t all about Mbappe in that regard, either. It was as much a statement from Mauricio Pochettino, as he secured such a win without Neymar and Angel Di Maria. That, however, is what the Argentine’s management is all about. It’s about transforming mentality, demolishing old demons, and looking to what is possible. What was possible here was an exhilarating display.
It really shouldn’t be overlooked that the last time PSG set foot on this pitch they suffered the worst night in the history of the club. This was instead one of the best, as Barca were once again made look like the rabble they have been for so long. It was another painful reminder of what they’ve become, as PSG banished bad memories of their own.
The final goal was the perfect distillation of where the teams are, as an attack led by Mbappe just outstripped a tired, lethargic-looking team. They are surely certain now to eliminate Barca from the Champions League for the first time in this era, after three successive defeats to the Catalans.
Kylian Mbappe completes his hat-trick
Some might fairly say it’s about time, given the extent of the investment into the French club, and what they are as a Qatari state project. That doesn’t preclude the fact this is now Mbappe’s time. He was at the centre of everything Paris Saint-Germain did well, but there was also a sense that there was better structure around him, amplifying those impressive talents. Those talents only seem to be multiplying, too.
This performance was about so much more than the goals, and that explosive power he has in small spaces. Both of his first two strikes were still exquisite examples of that, mind.
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The first, the equaliser, came after a deft touch from the excellent Marco Verratti that complemented the definitiveness of what Mbappe did. The 22-year-old just got on the ball and made it count, with the nature of the move – three touches and a blasting finish – all the more remarkable given he was so close to goal.
The second, that decisively put PSG ahead on more than away goals, was a similar sliver of instinct. With the ball loose in the box, but bodies in the way, Mbappe reacted far quicker than anyone to smash it into one of the open spaces. He was just capable of reacting more quickly and more sharply than anyone else, which has been the story of his career so far. It wasn’t completely the story of this game, though. There was also the way Mbappe ran it with more than his sprints.
He was dictacting it, directing the play. There was a point early in the second half, just as PSG motored into another gear, when it was as if Mbappe realised this was easy for him and he could do as he played. He began to pick the ball up in his own half and just drive. Such force only further emphasised the lethargy of Barcelona, and exposed the problems that have been building up for so long.
Lionel Messi reacts to Barcelona’s defeat
That defence, still so reliant on Gerard Pique that he was thrown in after three months, was repeatedly outmanoeuvred. It was as if they had just surrendered for the third goal, as Moise Kean was afforded the freedom of the area to power in a header.
There was a sense at that point that this could get ugly, and the potential for something akin to that 8-2. That naturally brought a lot of images of an ashen-faced Messi, looking into the stands or the sky or anywhere other than the scoreboard. Adding to the frustration for the Argentine was that the first half had fed one of the subplots that had enriched this game, given it gave a vision of Messi’s future.
It wasn’t a vision of where he’ll play in terms of club, but where he’ll play in terms of position. Messi looks like he has at least another half-decade left at the elite level in the Andre Pirlo role. His ball for Frenkie de Jong was as good as anyone previous master of the deep-lying playmaker role, and he was naturally the source of every single Barça attack.
While Messi’s pass for this was perfect, and looked destined for the midfielder’s in-step, you couldn’t confidently say the same about the decision. It was, to give it a generous description, soft. There certainly wasn’t hard contact as De Jong brushed off Layvin Kurzawa’s trailing leg. The eventual penalty was as good, as he powered it into the top corner. That, however, was also the corner Mbappe put it in to kill the game with the goal of the game.
This is another contrast between the two, though, that only serves to show how things have changed. Messi’s evolution comes from the necessity from a player now past his physical prime. Mbappe’s evolution comes naturally, from a player now very much entering his prime in every sense. He is becoming a more rounded player, and a more devastating player. He may now definitively be the best in the world. He was the best on the pitch here, capable of hurting the opposition in a way no one else could manage.
It has led to another dismally painful night for Messi and Barca. This, however, was about the future. That is definitively Mbappe’s.
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