PSG And Barcelona Turned A Champions League Feast Into A Soggy Appetizer

If you were to look only at the raw facts of the matter, you might think Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal clash between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain was a classic. It had stakes—a spot in the tournament’s semifinals hung in the balance, and with it, due to being on the easier side of the bracket, a golden opportunity to waltz into the final. It had big names—one of the game’s biggest clubs, Barcelona, and the game’s very biggest player, Kylian Mbappé. It had narrative intrigue—PSG boss Luis Enrique returning to the city where he made his name as a manager; PSG winger Ousmane Dembélé returning to the city where his name lost its early luster; Mbappé’s (possible?) last hurrah with PSG in the only competition that matters to them, and against his likely future employer’s biggest rival to boot; the memories of Barcelona’s famous comeback over PSG back in 2017. It had goals—five in this one, matching the five from the tie’s first leg. It had big, fate-altering moments—an early Barça goal that fortified its advantage in the tie, an early Ronald Araújo red card that changed everything, an important goal from Dembélé, two important goals from Mbappé, several near-misses from Barcelona. Yet in spite of all of that, Tuesday’s match felt oddly unremarkable and unsatisfying. PSG overturned Barça’s 3-2 first-leg advantage by going into enemy territory and beating the Blaugrana 4-1, and somehow that sentence is much more exciting than the actual game itself.

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Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, neither of these teams are particularly great. Barcelona, under Schrödinger’s lame duck Xavi Hernández, is what it has been for a couple seasons now: a decidedly unBarcelonan outfit that mostly wins, sometimes loses, but whose play neither dazzles nor inspires. PSG is what Mbappé has made it: a great big mirror that serves to intensify his own light but struggles to find illumination when he doesn’t shine. Win or lose, Barça matches don’t tend to leave much of a lasting impression either way; PSG is capable of beating or losing to anybody, but unless Mbappé himself goes nuclear, there usually isn’t much reason to care. It makes for a combo that doesn’t exactly scream “tie for the ages,” even in Tuesday’s otherwise auspicious circumstances.

In fact, our best bet for a memorable outcome to Tuesday’s match came from the one thing that most unites these two clubs in recent years: their shared affinity for Champions League embarrassments, and the greater soccer world’s shared love for laughing at their pratfalls. You could make out some of that here, at least at the margins. I personally was cackling while watching Barcelona put it on PSG during that stretch between the opening goal and Araújo’s red, delighting in yet another expensively assembled soft power vehicle going the way of the Cybertruck. I’m sure other viewers, whose emotions are less hopelessly tied to Barcelona’s fate than mine are, could find pleasure in Araújo’s boneheaded challenge that earned him the red card or João Cancelo’s boneheaded challenge that gave away a penalty or the team’s general ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But not even the comedy factor could elevate the match into something genuinely entertaining.

More than funny, Araújo’s red (one of those borderline, discretionary calls you couldn’t be too mad about regardless of which way it went) was just disappointing for how it spoiled what was an tantalizingly poised match; Barça’s first leg performance, the commendable show of fight while down to 10 in the second leg, and the unfortunate though deserved nature of the red card all prevent the loss from qualifying as a humiliation. PSG’s weak, anxious defending in spite of its numerical advantage didn’t wind up affecting the outcome, and in the other direction, Mbappé’s otherwise anonymous contributions to the game outside of the two goals he was gifted meant this one won’t go down as one of the Frenchman’s iconic outings. For a while it looked like Barcelona would win, then the red came and it felt like PSG would win, and neither team hit highs or lows notable enough for the game to matter outside of the result.

Obviously, though, the result does matter. For Barcelona, the loss is another disappointing European night to add to the list. If the win in the first leg looked like it might’ve exorcised the demons that have accrued over what is now an almost decade-long parade of Champions League indignities, Tuesday’s loss proved that the house remains haunted. For Xavi’s part, the result hurts, but doesn’t kill, his chances of staying on another season. Had Barça qualified for the semis, I’m confident that Xavi would’ve “allowed” himself to be convinced to change his mind about leaving at the end of the season. Losing, and doing so from such a strong position, makes it harder to justify keeping him around. This weekend’s upcoming Clásico could be decisive: a Real Madrid win would probably spell the true end to his future with the club.

The situation with PSG is much more interesting. Luis Enrique’s first season in charge has been erratic to say the least. This semifinal run should be enough to save his job, though the fact that PSG will come into that tie as the big favorites against Borussia Dortmund means falling to the Germans could cost him his job. In terms of PSG’s star, making it to the semis should bolster Mbappé’s legacy at the club, or at the very least it should help keep him in PSG fans’ good graces though the end of the season. Doing right by PSG’s fans does seem to matter to Mbappé, and dragging the team to where French clubs rarely get to should help him achieve that goal.

But what if PSG does make it to the final? And what if their opponent there is none other than Real Madrid? Could Mbappé’s ego let him swap Paris for Madrid if the Blancos had just beaten him in the final, possibly handing the Ballon d’Or to Vinícius or Jude Bellingham, two of the Frenchman’s biggest rivals for generational supremacy, making Mbappé’s arrival in Madrid not the coming of the savior but as a flashy but arguably extraneous bauble? Could a PSG victory convince Mbappé that he really can have it all in Paris, and lead to him staying? Or would a PSG title just make it easier for Mbappé to leave, after he’d accomplished all he’d came for and left the club and its fans happy before he sought new adventures elsewhere?

Just thinking about the potential directions this could go is enough to make you lick your lips. Unlike the Barça-PSG tie itself, let’s hope the actual play for the rest of the tournament lives up to it all this time.

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