Kylian Mbappe made his first appearance at the Camp Nou on Monday night. He had never been there, not only had he never played on that famous field, but he had never been a spectator. He loved it and didn’t feel an ounce of fear or anxiety ahead of Tuesday night’s game in Barcelona.
They would forgive him if he did: PSG had to do without Neymar and Angel Di Maria in the Champions League Round of 16, and for the clash with Lionel Messi & Co. In the distance, they played a whole series of mediocre performances.
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The PSG did not arrive in Catalonia full of confidence and momentum. During Monday’s training session, the young French prodigy was approached by Mauricio Pochettino. How many times have you won here, boss? he asked him. Only once, when I was in Española, did the director answer me. Tomorrow will be the second time, he told the Argentine coach with a smile.
Mbappy enjoyed the challenge. His first game at Camp Nou, his first game with Barcelona, his first club match with Messi (played with him when France faced Argentina at the 2018 World Cup) and his first Champions League match without Neymar and Di Maria – all in one night. He was on a mission, though Pochettino didn’t want him to get too excited or nervous. During the pre-match discussion, the PSG manager made sure that Mbappe didn’t think or feel that he had to win on his own; he didn’t want his star to try too hard to do everything on his own.
Paris would be the team to win in Barcelona, and a big one at that. Markinhos said after the 4-1 victory that football is a team sport. But when the team is strong, people shine. That was the motto of the MTP on Tuesday. Only with a strong team can players like Mbappe, Marco Verratti or Marquinhos shine. And the intelligence they had.
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Mbappe was great. His hat-trick, which made him the first outfielder to score three Champions League goals since Andriy Shevchenko at Dynamo Kyiv in 1997, is a reminder of the 22-year-old’s incredible talent. But it was also a confirmation that he can win a game like this and carry the team when needed. At a time when Mbappe is still openly undecided about his future, such a win can only be good from PSG’s point of view to persuade him to stay.
PSG under Pochettino since his arrival at 2. Watching them play in January was beyond disappointing. Still, Tuesday was a night that should set the tone for the new coach and his team. Despite the difficulties, despite the absence and presence of Messi before them.
Pochettino had a meticulous plan for Barca and his players executed it perfectly. The aim was to play balls for Mbappe and Moise Keane, who Pochettino chose with great efficiency over Pablo Sarabia, into the half-space around Mauro Icardi and force FC Barcelona full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest to follow them up the pitch, allowing PSG full-backs Alessandro Florenzi and Leyvin Kurzawa to break free to support the attack. They both contributed to the first and third goals after Markinhos and Paredes played some great passes.
Verratti played a more central role, above and between the lines in ball possession, but was also very effective defensively on the left, taking away almost all of Mbappe’s defensive duties.
PSG played a perfect game against Barcelona on Tuesday night, but Pochettino & Co. refused to be shaken off, considering they had a huge lead last time out. Alex Caparros – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images.
Defensively, Paris was also perfect. Keane and Florenzi prevented Alba from picking up his cross, while Icardi’s superb individual effort prevented Sergio Busquets from making his mark. Overall, PSG also prevented Messi and Pedri from continuing their productive relationship, limiting the duo to just five appearances together. It all worked out so well. Looking at the performances of Pochettino’s Argentine compatriots Paredes and Icardi, it is also clear what the PSG boss has done to educate his players.
It’s true that Barcelona were bad on Tuesday night, but that’s because PSG were so good. Barca’s struggles are why no one at the club or among the players wants to devalue the victory. The Spanish are not what they used to be, but no rival has managed to beat them so easily and with such conviction this season. Until Tuesday night, no one had scored four goals this season – not Real, Atletico, Sevilla or Juventus. (Although it must be said that Juve’s 3-0 win in the group stage, with two penalties, was impressive and allowed them to finish behind the Catalans first and second in their group thanks to the draw at PSG. Barca also beat Juve 2-0 in Turin this season).
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Of course, it’s an important win for Pochettino and PSG. As a new manager who has only been in place for six weeks, it is very important to have big wins and good performances right away, to give the team a boost and get support from the management staff. Although the level of play of the team was not very high until Tuesday, they have already won twice against Marseille in the colours of Argentina and now have a declared victory in Europe. While Thomas Tuchel is doing well in his first few weeks at Chelsea and the pressure on Pochettino was immense until Tuesday night, the former Spurs boss is going to enjoy himself. It means even more to him when he looks back on his time as a player and coach at Espanyol.
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Of course, there is still a return match to come and we hope Di Maria and Neymar are ready for the match in Paris on the 10th. In March, again. The difference with last time is that everyone in the dressing room after the first was already focused on the second stage. You know that the work is not finished and that the ghosts of Remontade are still there in 2017. The scar is still visible. The nightmare of four years ago will only disappear if they beat Messi and Barca in style next month.
There was no undue joy in the locker room on Tuesday night. Mbappe, who was sitting next to Sarabia, kept the match point next to him and the man next to him won the match trophy. Every PSG player has signed the ball and it will undoubtedly become the showpiece of Mbappe’s trophy room at home in Paris. Paredes and Icardi, side by side, enjoying their companion. Joy was everywhere, but nothing was overwhelming.
Like Tuesday night at Camp Nou, they have yet to reach the quarter-finals and are still only second in Ligue 1. There’s still a lot to do this season.