Mbappe surely cannot bow out so quietly in Barcelona

When Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick in the Camp Nou three years ago, it was seen as the changing of the guard in the world of football individualism. It was a night that helped PSG move on from the Remontada, their infamous Champions League collapse in 2017, but it would also prove to be Lionel Messi’s final European match for Barcelona. A new global star was stealing the throne.

The symmetry was all so very neat and of course, a World Cup final won by Messi’s Argentina in December 2022 illustrated that switch did not happen as quickly as most anticipated. But now, three years on, PSG are going to return to Barcelona knowing that this time, it is their star player who is poised to end their shared European story. As it stands, Mbappe faces the prospect of playing his final Champions League match for PSG, in Barcelona. That is the club who scarred his current team in 2017, and may well soon become his most vociferous opponent in Spain (should he, as expected, join Real Madrid when his contract expires this summer). 

Not only that, but it would mean his final Champions League appearance at the Parc des Princes would be the one witnessed last night, in which PSG suffered a 3-2 defeat. It was a night that brought a 27-match unbeaten run to a close, but it was also one in which Mbappe was shackled. PSG’s all-time leading goalscorer, including in Europe, was reduced to three shots on goal, two of which were blocked and the last of which came 80 minutes after the second. It was the first time he played a home Champions League game since September 2021 (against Manchester City)  without having a shot on target. His other highlights were one successful dribble out of three, three offsides and 44 touches. Half-time substitute Bradley Barcola managed 34. “The coach is responsible for the result,” said Luis Enrique. “And I won’t speak on players individually.”

That is not the way Mbappe will want to end his European story with PSG, and neither would a goodbye at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys — known for the hill it sits on, Montjuic, Barcelona’s temporary home — be deemed fitting.

To avert that scenario, PSG will have to find a different formula to the one implemented for their first leg in Paris. This was a game of major swings in momentum and was decided by “finer margins”, as Luis Enrique noted. But it was also one in which they lost control twice, and failed throughout the game to bring their best player to the fore.

“The wingers helped us a lot defensively,” said Barcelona head coach, Xavi. “Cubarsi jumped so well against Kang-in Lee, against (Marco) Asensio sometimes, because they changed a lot of players. We defended so well against Mbappe with (Jules) Kounde and Ronald Araujo, and we created many chances. Robert (Lewandowski) made the difference and Raphinha.”

Barcelona were smart in their approach. They absorbed PSG’s early enthusiasm, no doubt buoyed by the growing expectancy surrounding the team which was furthered again by some pre-match choreography — a full-on Star Wars tribute featuring a Parisian Yoda and a rendition of the imperial death march to accompany Barcelona’s warm-up. The visitor’s adopted a 4-4-2 out of possession and they were unafraid to go direct.  They used goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s range of passing up to Robert Lewandowski, who had the nous to get the better of 20-year-old Lucas Beraldo, who had a difficult night. Lewandowski’s hold up work moved the team up the field and brought the excellent pairing of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal and Raphinha into play. 

On Mbappe, Xavi cooled the idea of a specific plan pre-match but it was clear that he was keeping matters around the France captain tight. “You have to be aggressive, mark him, be attentive because PSG is one of the best teams in transitions,” he said. In the past, during Classicos with Real Madrid, he has sometimes swapped Ronald Araujo out to right back to combat Vinicius Jr but here he trusted right back Kounde, knowing well that Araujo would be close to support him and Sergi Roberto could screen him in attack. Luis Enrique’s decision to play with Asensio as a false nine served to assist Barcelona in doubling up on Mbappe, without fear of a disruptive PSG presence to occupy them. Asensio had a limited impact.

Mbappe had initially benefitted from Nuno Mendes’ bright start at left back, and it was the Portuguese defender who assisted his first shot on goal in the 5th minute. But increasingly, Mendes became occupied with Yamal going the other way and those overloads on the left, and the subsequent space, dwindled.

Much changed at the interval when Luis Enrique brought on Barcola and moved Dembele in-field — which allowed Mbappe more space and put Dembele closer to him. But after the initial shock of the changes, Barcelona adjusted, and regained control through the introduction of Pedri and Joao Felix. Again, PSG will look to defensive vulnerabilities for the goals they conceded, stemming from poor distribution from Donnarumma and then a poorly defended corner. But control and sustained attacking momentum proved elusive. 

PSG were missing Achraf Hakimi, an integral part of the team’s attacking set up. His vertical runs offer a different dynamic and Barcelona’s back line was not stretched enough before the break. His return will certainly help in an attacking sense. There were questions too about Luis Enrique’s decision not to field Warren Zaire-Emery, the first time he has not started in the Champions League this season. PSG’s midfield was very attack-minded.

“That’s why I am the coach, that’s why I’ve been doing this job for many years,” he said when asked. “I thought they would be the best players and the ones who are most prepared. Of course the result doesn’t back up my decision, but I happily accept everything that comes with a defeat. I congratulate the opponents.” Luis Enrique has tinkered often during his tenure so far, infamously starting four forwards away at Newcastle United in September, resulting in a 4-1 hammering, but then conversely using Dembele in a central attacking midfield role against Real Sociedad in the round of 16, which ensured a comfortable victory.

His in-game rectifications illustrated an awareness of the issues but in Xavi, he found a strong opposite number guiding a young, impressive team.

The key thing to note for PSG is that this is very much half time, in a tie that has already swung greatly in both directions. The removal of the away goals rule has unshackled this edition of the Champions League. “I have no doubt that we can qualify,” said Luis Enrique. “Everyone speculates, but we, for example, have not lost away in the Championship. We have six days to prepare.” 

PSG have never won a Champions League tie having lost the first leg, but now have the coach who inflicted the Remontada upon them and they know they can win in Catalunya, too.

But to overturn this deficit, they need to find a way to bring Mbappe to the fore once more. Another quiet night like this one, in the setting of Barcelona’s temporary homestead, would not be the way to bow out. 

(Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

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