There were five minutes left when Kylian Mbappé bent a beautiful shot into the far corner of the net, the ball describing a perfect arc and his perfect night. Marc-André ter Stegen dived but could not stop the Frenchman and nor could anyone else. This was astonishing, a statement of intent and the kind of performance that should have played out before 98,000 people surrendering to his superiority; instead, a virtually empty stadium witnessed him score a superb hat-trick that led Paris Saint-Germain to a deserved 4-1 victory at the Camp Nou.
By the end, Barcelona were broken, unable to live with opponents that were way beyond them in every sense, the gap between these teams revealed to be gigantic. Barcelona’s recent recovery, if that is what it was, was replaced by another reality. PSG were quicker, cleverer, better positioned, better on the ball, at ease even when they fell behind to a Lionel Messi penalty. Even without Ángel Di María and Neymar, they were too good, Leandro Paredes and Marco Verratti taking control and Mbappé taking Barcelona apart.
A rivalry with a short but intense history, a script with many subplots, has another episode and enters another era. It has another lead character too; maybe world football does. If at some point in the small hours, Barcelona’s players finally get some sleep, they will probably still see Mbappé running at them and disappearing into the distance, their own feet nailed to the floor. He had done so from the start, first escaping after 49 seconds, and did not stop until he was walking away with the match ball under his arm at full time.
That first time, Ter Stegen sliced nervously clear but it was a glimpse of the future, a warning not to blink during an opening period that was fast, open, and fun – for those without a stake in it, at least. There was a directness, an intent about it all that was illustrated early by Moise Kean accelerating past Clément Lenglet. There was tension too, a feeling that anything could happen at any moment, especially when Mbappé appeared. The question was whether they could keep up this rhythm. The answer was that PSG could. Barcelona could not.
There were also opportunities. Pedri’s lovely filtered pass gave one to Antoine Griezmann, stopped by Keylor Navas. Five minutes later, Mbappé gave one to Mauro Icardi, only for Pedri to clear off the line. Next Verratti made a superb tackle on Griezmann. And then, after 25 minutes, Barcelona took the lead.
It was a pretty mundane, almost bureaucratic way to open the scoring given all that had gone before and would come next. After all that intent, it was accidental too, Frenkie de Jong tumbling after his trailing leg brushed Layvin Kurzawa’s knee. Björn Kuipers pointed to the spot and Messi sent the penalty rocketing beyond Navas.
The response was swift, assured, and superbly taken. It was also sustained. Three minutes had passed when Verratti flicked into Mbappé with the outside of his boot. With his first touch, Mbappé turned, surged past Lenglet and smashed into the roof of the net.
The storm was him and he had barely started, Ter Stegen pushing away shots from Kurzawa and Kean. Between those two, Griezmann sprinted away only to pull his effort past the post. Then Icardi’s header went close on the stroke of half-time.
There was no stopping PSG now. Mbappé came running out the tunnel and straight at Barcelona, immediately firing just wide; Icardi’s shot was blocked; and Ter Stegen produced a superb save from Kean after Mbappé’s flight and Icardi’s backheel carved out the chance. They had not been back out five minutes yet but it was already a long time for Barcelona, unable to hold back the tide, a penalty shout for handball all they could muster.
PSG accelerated into the distance, Paredes’s wonderful long pass releasing Alessandro Florenzi whose cut-back was finished by Mbappé for the second. After smoothly turning Sergiño Dest a moment later, Mbappé was denied by Ter Stegen but it was only a temporary reprieve. This was relentless now, Kean heading in Paredes’s curling delivery to make it three. And, if the score was bad for Barcelona, worse was the time: there were still 20 minutes of this, the punishment destined to be more painful.
Navas almost gifted Barcelona a goal with a rebound off Griezmann and that was their only “chance”, as PSG continued to tear into them. With 10 minutes left, Ronald Koeman made three changes but more than an act of faith, it was an act of mercy. Gerard Piqué, Dest and Pedri had suffered enough. They all had. Mbappé, though, was not finished yet.