Kylian Mbappe anonymous as Xavi gives the finger to Barcelona tiki taka

Will Ford
Mbappe PSG
Kylian Mbappe failed to deliver for PSG against Barcelona.

Kylian Mbappe was probably the worst player on the pitch as the team formerly known as Barcelona won a game that was incredibly dull and then utterly absorbing.

This was always likely to be a comedown after Real Madrid 3-3 Manchester City, but after the first half we were wondering how a game between the second-best team in Spain and the best team in France could be quite so hard to watch. Our second-half selves would have urged patience.

Described as “the hottest ticket in town” on commentary as we endured a Barcelona team managed by one of the best passers of a football in history hoof the ball long to a big man and Paris Saint-Germain seemingly give up possession on purpose in order to win it back again and launch counter-attacks which came to nothing, we questioned why the TV director didn’t linger longer on shots of the celebrity fodder in the stands, picked out to give the impression of a spectacle worth watching, when in fact Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Didier Deschamps and Pierre Gasly looked as thoroughly unimpressed as we were.

Xavi’s game plan was working to a tee.

This is nothing like the Barcelona team captained by him and managed by his opposite number that last won the Champions League for the Catalans in 2015. It’s impossible not to compare them – and very difficult to get past the feeling that that was Barcelona and this is not – but it’s to Xavi’s great credit that he’s understood that this group of players aren’t able to play tika taka, and has found a method that suits them.

They were compact and comfortable in defence with Sergi Roberto, Ilkay Gundogan and Frenkie de Jong acting as a very effective shield in midfield, and played near enough every first pass to Robert Lewandowski, who led the line expertly while Raphinha and Lamine Yamal offered consistent threat on the wings.

The opener was far too easy. Lewandowski ran through three PSG midfielders, all of whom could have tackled him but didn’t, and Yamal’s ball into the box – dangerous though it was – should have been palmed well away by a very shaky Gianluigi Donnarumma, but fell at the feet of an unmarked Raphinha, who kept his composure to beat two players on the line.

Xavi Barcelona
Xavi masterminded Barcelona’s win over PSG.

By half-time Kylian Mbappe had had the fewest touches (21) of anyone on the pitch but Marco Asensio, who was wisely replaced by Luis Enrique at the break, after which we were treated to football far more befitting of teams of such repute. It caught fire in quite extraordinary fashion.

Ousmane Dembele drew PSG level with a thunderous shot in the 48th minute and the home side were ahead by the 50th after a fine touch and finish from Vitinha followed some neat build-up play on the right.

Bradley Barcola made a difference having come on for Asensio, and was one of eight Under-21 players to feature on the night, including teenagers Yamal, Pau Cubarsi and Warren Zaire-Emery, and relative old-timer Pedri, who produced a sublime pass for Barcelona’s equaliser.

The 21-year-old – who started on the bench having only just come back from injury – clipped a straight pass over the PSG defence into the path of Raphinha, whose finish was arguably even better than the assist, as he struck the ball on the run and on the volley with the outside of his left foot as it came over his shoulder. Glorious.

It was an almost jarring shift in momentum in a game that at that point looked as though it could only be won by PSG. But as is so typical of them in the Champions League, Enrique’s side threw it away. Andreas Christensen – brought on to shore up the Barcelona midfield – headed in with his first touch from a Gundogan corner, that Donnarumma should have come for, under very little pressure from the PSG defenders.

Enrique will be scratching his head as to how his players managed to let the game slip away from them having been so dominant after half-time, and at how his talisman – the talisman of world football – could be so anonymous.

Mbappe had three shots, none of them threatening, lost possession on five occasions, more than anyone, and perhaps most remarkably, completed just one dribble. It would be easy to suggest he doesn’t particularly care with his move to Real Madrid on the horizon, or that he’s sulking having been used sparingly in recent weeks by Enrique, as the PSG boss prepares for a future without him.

Either or both could be true, but what we do know for sure is that that wasn’t the real Kylian Mbappe.

It wasn’t the real Barcelona either, by which we mean the Barcelona teams of old that we will continue to deify. But it was an effective one, now in with a very good chance of making a Champions League semi-final for only the second time in eight years. They’re not ‘back’ back, but they are very much about.

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