Eventually, Paris Saint-Germain get there, maybe before Kylian Mbappe goes there. There was certainly a level of genius about how he got into this space.
You couldn’t quite say the French star stole the game given how utterly dominant his team were, but he did steal the show.
Mbappe’s mercurial stoppage-time winner gave PSG a deserved 1-0 win over a dismally defensive Real Madrid, to also ensure Leo Messi’s saved penalty did not have the same cost.
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That is always the risk you run when you try and play it so safe. It was an inevitability of Madrid being so conservative, and perhaps an inevitability of the fact this was the first Champions League knock-out tie since the abolition of the away goal rule.
Madrid apparently had no interest in scoring one. It’s also possible, however, that they had no means of scoring one.
The entire match was one grand display of why this stale team so badly need Mbappe. It may well change the future.
He changed the tie, brilliantly changing pace to terrorise Real’s back line one last time and finally beat the defiant Thibaut Courtois.
The goalkeeper was one reason why PSG were not out of sight by then.
There was a surprisingly clear difference in individual quality between the sides. It became obvious any time PSG got on the ball, which was often. They just looked a level above, with Messi dictating the game, and Mbappe driving it. There were long periods when Madrid could do little else but sit deep and stay compact, unwilling to give up any space.
That was a problem when Messi was so effortlessly moving between the lines, and Mbappe just accelerating through them.
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Carvajal must have been exhausted from having to react to the number of moments when the French striker shaped to shoot only to accelerate off in the other direction, and that’s before you even got to having to chase Mbappe. That could have had greater cost much earlier than it did. It should have brought the opening goal as early as the 62nd minute, given how Carvajal could do little but lunge at Mbappe for that penalty.
Even before that, such a move should have brought the opening goal after just minutes, when Mbappe slid the ball across for Di Maria. The Argentine could only blaze over.
Messi himself then put Mbappe through with a divine ball that dropped perfectly, but he was bundled to the ground.
The single issue with all of this is that, while PSG had the individual quality, they didn’t really have any kind of greater idea. Pochettino can’t but be frustrated with this team. You could even see it in the warm-up, where the stars did little more than idly attempt long shots for the laugh.
There was no higher level of movement, and there certainly wasn’t in their play. None of it was really sharp enough to create that extra space, leaving them reliant on moments of individual inspiration.
How many times have those words been repeated about such teams?
The problem here was that perhaps the most inspired performance came from Thibaut Courtois. He got down down so sharply to deny Mbappe minutes into the second half, and then offered the moment of the match with that save to deny Messi.
You could sense the Argentine’s frustration with a poor kick. You could also see it in his performance after it.
He was suddenly everywhere, trying to do everything.
There was an element of Steven Gerrard against Chelsea in 2014 about his display, as if looking to atone for a high-profile mistake.
When the ball seemed to fall invitingly for Leandro Paredes minutes later, Messi just took it off him and attempted a speculative shot that of course cannoned off one of the many Madrid bodies in the way.
Pochettino then introduced the one figure that was so conspicuously absent from the PSG team, as Neymar came on for his first football since November.
The Brazilian looked a little ragged but his introduction did coincide with more intensity from PSG. Messi had put both he and Mbappe for late chances. It looked like they were running out of time, and there was almost an accepting innocuousness about Neymar’s late pass out wide to Mbappe.
The forward wasn’t having any of that. He was making the game his own, and maybe again making this season.
Mbappe surged forward, showing impossible dexterity to get into a seemingly impossible space, before finishing brilliantly.
It was a brilliant piece of individual inspiration. That is what PSG are relying on. That is what Madrid so badly need.
That is what may have decided this tie. It means we’re no longer talking about Messi.
After that from Mbappe, how could you talk about anything else?
Photo Credit: Getty