This certainly wasn’t the first time a player has used the Camp Nou as a setting to prove himself as so much better than anyone else on the pitch. What was unusual, however, was that on this occasion the player operating at such a high level it frequently felt unfair wasn’t called Lionel Messi.
In time, this could be looked back upon as a passing of the baton moment. Kylian Mbappe’s brilliance has been clear for years, but there was a symbolism to the way he dominated this match, scoring an astonishing hat-trick in a 4-1 win that should see Paris Saint-Germain sweep past Barcelona into the Champions League quarter finals.
Barca left themselves open at the back for too much of the match. Their defending left much to be desired, with Ousmane Dembele guilty of leaving Sergino Dest exposed one-on-one against the pace of the PSG counter attack. While Barcelona carried a threat of their own, it felt like they could concede almost every time they lost the ball.
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And yet even if Ronald Koeman had set up his team to sit deep, to plug the gaps at the back and keep things tight, Mbappe still surely would have found a way to cause damage. It was just that sort of night for the 22-year-old. It didn’t matter much whether Barca stood off him or went tight, whether they forced him out wide or allowed him to drive through the middle.
As a forward in the modern game, Mbappe is the complete package. His lightning pace is the most eye-catching aspect of his game, but the Frenchman is so much more than just a speed merchant. Dembele is nearly as fast as Mbappe and look at how little threat he posed in this match.
Comparisons to both Thierry Henry and Ronaldo at the peak of his powers in the 1990s are understandable. There was an air of the latter’s famous hat trick at Old Trafford about the way Mbappe made one of European football’s biggest stages his own. Had fans been inside the Camp Nou, they might have applauded too, after they’d waved their white handkerchiefs.
Like Mbappe, Henry and Ronaldo appeared to play the game in fast forward, combining movements in a way that would be impossible for anyone else. See how the 22-year-old scored his first goal against Barcelona, controlling a pass, turning and smashing a finish into the net before Gerard Pique could even shift his feet.
For so long, Messi and Barca have been the epitome of football at its very best. Now, though, there’s a sense the Catalan club have been left behind. On the same pitch as Mbappe, even Messi had the look of a player of another era, as if Diego Maradona had been dropped straight into a modern day contest.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Messi and Mbappe could be team-mates next season. The former is set to become a free agent this summer and PSG have been public in their pursuit of the great man. But on the basis of this performance, it’s not guaranteed Messi would be the main man at the Parc des Princes should he pitch up there. Neymar, after all, already finds himself in Mbappe’s shadow.
Not since Andriy Shevchenko for Dynamo Kiev in 1997 had a visiting player scored a European hat trick at the Camp Nou, but not many visiting players have turned in a performance like Mbappe did here. It would be wrong to claim a star was born tonight, but this might have been the moment that star started to shine brighter than all others.
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