Tuesday’s first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona was billed as a clash of superstars. Normally, when soccer matches are hyped as such, it means that moments of magic can be expected from the best players, while the rest of the participants do their best to hold down the fort. Not this time, though.
PSG’s 4–1 victory against Barcelona was a star-versus-star showdown simply because most of the others weren’t quite up to the task, whether due to injury (Neymar), fatigue (everyone; thanks, COVID!), or generally poor squad construction (more of an issue on Barcelona’s side than PSG’s). The battle between Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi decided who would take the lead in the tie, and it’s safe to say that the Argentine got thoroughly outplayed by his French counterpart.
Heading into the match, the biggest question was Barcelona’s defense. It wasn’t a matter of whether they could stop Mbappé, but rather if they could slow him down enough to give Messi a chance on the other end. The answer was a resounding no. The 22-year-old put in one of the best single-game Champions League performances you’ll ever see: six shots, four chances created, nine successful take-ons, and, of course, a hat trick of goals. His first two tallies were striker’s finishes. The first followed a nice little dribble inside the box, while the second was simply a lucky rebound from a Gerard Piqué clearance.
But the third was a perfect example what Mbappé does better than anyone. On a quick PSG counterattack, the Frenchman ran alongside Julian Draxler, who did an excellent job of pulling Frenkie de Jong back towards the middle of the box, leaving the German an easy pass to Mbappé, who held his run perfectly and then slotted an unstoppable shot past Barcelona goalie Marc-André ter Stegen to finish the rout.
There’s no more dangerous player in counter play in the world than Mbappé. Though de Jong probably made the right call in leaving him to deny Draxler space at the top of the box, it still feels wrong to give the French attacker even a sniff at another goal, the one that likely seals any chance of a Barça comeback. (It’s important to note here that the last time these two clubs met in the Champions League, Barcelona came back from a 4–0 deficit. Unfortunately for the Catalans, the architect of that comeback, Neymar, is now on the other side.)
I could take some time here to discuss Barcelona’s defensive instability, particularly with Ronald Araújo, its best center back of the past couple of months, out with an injury. I could also focus on the missed chances by the Blaugrana, or the fact that Messi looks as gassed as ever in his age-34 season. But I’m not going to. Barcelona ran into a better team, even though PSG was missing the current best player in the world, and its best player on the day made them pay over and over and over again.
The story here might be that this, alongside Barcelona’s 8–2 defeat in the Champions League last summer, could be the end for the Messi era in Spain. It might be! But the real story is that Mbappé, often overshadowed by his attacking partner, is physically, technically, and mentally unstoppable on his best day. He did nothing on Tuesday that he hasn’t done many times before in Ligue 1 (he does have 16 goals in domestic play this season); he just did it all at once, and against a supposedly elite European side.
To be sure, he had help, more than Messi did; Draxler’s play on the fourth goal really was perfect, and Marco Verratti continued playing like one of the best midfielders in the world, controlling the game and torturing poor Sergio Busquets. In this clash of star men, though, Mbappé was PSG’s battering ram. He might take a step back when Neymar returns to the fold, but Tuesday’s match showed that he’s ready, at the age of 22, to be the brightest star on whatever team he suits up for.