The Camp Nou was vast in its emptiness on Tuesday night, and that was perfectly fitting. In the stands, silence swirled from stand to stand as yet another showpiece Champions League event passed by without a trace of the atmosphere and spectacle it deserved. On the pitch, Barcelona were hollow and soulless; the last trace of their identity ebbing away by the minute. Even their king was overthrown.
Lionel Messi must be used to it by now, humiliation in Europe is becoming an annual event for the Blaugrana. Paris Saint-Germain, 4-1 victors this week, almost swept them aside four years ago but Messi, alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar, sprung into action to create history with arguably the greatest comeback and one of the best Champions League knockout games ever to maintain Barcelona’s incredible record of progression to the Champions League quarter finals.
From 4-0 down in the first leg in 2017, they somehow rallied to a 6-1 victory at home, exposing their opposition’s weak mentality. They made a tenth consecutive appearance in the last eight, but their chances of making it 14 this year look ominous.
Barcelona, minus Suarez and Neymar and with an ageing, tired and frustrated Messi, are at the end of their cycle, seemingly for good this time. Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Juventus and Roma have all beaten them heavily, but Messi’s inspiration was always a beacon of hope. Even that seems unlikely now.
PSG may well be at the start of theirs. Mauricio Pochettino, who made his name as a coach across the Catalan capital at Espanyol, is setting his plan in motion. Mauro Icardi, a former Barça youth product, and Marco Verratti were among the star names covering for the fact that Neymar, injured and missing a first return to his former home, couldn’t steal the limelight from Messi.
It must have been difficult for the Brazilian, who moved to Paris in that earth-shattering, game-changing transfer to do exactly that. But one missed narrative gave way for another. Kylian Mbappe, long assumed to be heir to Messi’s throne, confirmed his position with a sublime hat-trick.
There was an air of familiarity about his performance, not only because it felt like the sequel to his last encounter with Messi, when he scored twice for France in the World Cup last 16 in Russia three years ago, as Les Bleus beat Argentina 4-3. His play was comparable to Ronaldo, the Brazilian, in his pomp during his year at Barcelona, darting and sweeping across the turf at breakneck speed; Mbappe was nimble, he was rapid and he was devastating.
His first goal was perhaps most typical of this. Inside the box, Mbappe took a heavy touch, but instantly reacted to set himself with another, twisting his body into position before rifling the ball into the roof of the net with no back-lift. For his second, his positioning and timing was perfect, and his third saw him complete a deadly counter attack with a pinpoint, curling strike from outside the box.
He’d written himself into folklore, becoming just the second player to score three times as an opposing player at Camp Nou in the Champions League. The previous was Andriy Shevchenko for Dynamo Kyiv in 1997 and and Tino Asprilla, who did it for Newcastle United at St James’ Park just weeks earlier.
Nobody is surprised by the rise of Kylian Mbappe. It was initially meteoric with the Manchester City game when he was at Monaco as a teenager stands out as his very first foray into the conversation as a future superstar, four years ago. This game was different; symbolic in that it felt as though Messi was running out of steam and, for the first time, being overtaken, but it was also clear evidence that the 22-year-old may have a decision to make soon.
Part of the issue Neymar has faced in his quest to become the best in the world was the comparative ease with which PSG win league games superseded the apparent need to get out of Messi’s shadow. Ligue 1 has struggled badly during the pandemic, both in terms of finances and marketing a cohesive product. Although Lille are currently punching above their weight, the room for growth for Mbappe could soon run out.
Neymar has found similar problems, but his conduct and performances have almost categorically cast him out of the conversation now. His young teammate is the main attraction and the one most likely to sweep individual awards, but Mbappe must position himself correctly.
Big transfers are tough to do with modern valuations as it is, but COVID-19 could complicate matters further. Real Madrid will move heaven and earth to attract Mbappe, but they may struggle to finance a deal. Having sold their original Messi contingency plan, Neymar, Barcelona would love to sign him too, but their debts are too high to even contemplate a deal.
Premier League clubs, especially Manchester City who are in the market for a striker, will almost certainly be on red alert too. Spain or England would certainly be the best move for ‘brand Mbappe’.
Erling Haaland, another reported City target, has already sown the seeds of a new rivalry with Mbappe. Both have better goal records than either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Juventus side are 2-1 down to Porto in their Champions League tie, and it seems clear that they will soon move aside for a new era of world class battles.
Having seen Mbappe score a hat-trick, Haaland, who is two years younger at 20, admitted it fuelled his performance for Borussia Dortmund at Sevilla on Wednesday. He scored twice but has now taken competition total to 17 in just 15 games. It seems as though Haaland and Mbappe will be pushing each other all the way.
After taking ownership at the Camp Nou, Mbappe has shown he is already at the very top of the game. Haaland is right there with him, but while Dortmund build their policy around cashing in on assets and reinvesting, PSG will try to keep hold of the Frenchman. They’ll need him if they are to make waves, but he should be wary of outgrowing his surroundings before too long.
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