They are as predictable as night following day. European football has a distinct food chain, with Real Madrid and Barcelona the only two apex predators. When one of those predators is humbled by a secondary consumer, you can rely on a spate of transfer rumours emerging.
In the case of Marco Verratti, the media leaks began even before the match. His agent, Donato Di Campli, warned that Verratti would look to leave Paris if the club could not win the Champions League, while others talked of Veratti being Xavi’s natural heir. The timing was deliberate: One of Real Madrid or Barcelona have competed in five of the last eight finals.
Yet competing was something that Barcelona entirely failed to do on Tuesday. There have been signs since December that Unai Emery is finally getting to grips with his job at the Parc des Princes, and Paris St Germain are reaping the rewards. If 11 wins and a draw from their last 12 matches ensured that PSG entered the tie in fine form, nobody was quite ready for this. If this was a night for Barcelona’s dynasty to enter a retirement home, their opponents came of age.
At the heart of their success was Verratti, a tenacious but cultured midfielder designed for nights such as these. He may have played only 70 minutes, but only one Paris St Germain player completed more passes, only one did so with more accuracy, only one created more chances, one made more tackles and none gained possession more often. As he walked from the pitch, it was to a roaring ovation from the home crowd.
Verratti is a multi-faceted central midfielder, but it is his shielding of the ball that is most impressive. Even in a heightened atmosphere against prodigious opponents, Barcelona could not nudge the Italian off course. To lose possession just five times in 70 minutes is exceptional, and to be fouled four times indicates just how important it was for Barcelona to break Verratti’s rhythm. Adrien Rabiot and Presnel Kimpembe were both excellent, but Verratti is PSG’s bellwether player: When he performs, so do they.
By Wednesday, Verratti was singing from a different hymn sheet to his agent:
“An article implied that I was dreaming to play for Barcelona. I’ve never said that. My dream is to win here. Even if we hadn’t won on Tuesday, I wouldn’t have thought otherwise. I trust the club and the project. When you are a part of a great project you feel very good about it. In my opinion, winning here is going to be different than winning in all the other clubs.”
That last line might provoke raised eyebrows and the occasional titter: The not-unreasonable assumption is that PSG have bought their way to dominance. This is the natural habitat of the mercenary, a home for those such as Edinson Cavani and Angel di Maria who are no longer ruthless enough to thrive at an apex predator.
Yet look back through the team that humbled Barcelona. Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp joined for £8m from Eintracht Frankfurt, right-back Thomas Meunier cost £5m when arriving from Club Brugge, Blaise Matuidi arrived five years ago from St Etienne for £8m, with Verratti himself joining him from Pescara a year later for less than £10m. Two of their best performers, Kimpembe and Rabiot, are products of the club’s youth academy. Tell me the last time Chelsea or Manchester City, the Premier League’s nouveau riche, started such a high-profile match with two academy graduates.
Look too at the ages of the two teams on Tuesday evening. Two of Barcelona’s starting outfielders – Samuel Umtiti and Andre Gomes – were aged 24 and under, compared to six for PSG. Four of the seven players on their bench matched the same criteria, and included another two graduates of the Camp des Loges. For all the accusations of overspending, there is long-termism to match the knee-jerk.
Paris St Germain might not be a club whose history is littered with famous European nights, nor with the pedigree and status of European football’s apex predators. But Tuesday was the kind of night that can shape a club’s future. Rather than look for greener grass elsewhere, the likes of Verratti, Rabiot and Layvin Kurzawa should admire the view in their own back garden. Get the right draw, and something truly special could be achieved. For all the league titles and domestic cups, these are the nights of our lives.