Rage, rage against the dying of the light. On a damp night at the Parc Des Princes, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain dished up a breezy, open Champions League last 16 second-leg tie marked by a performance of familiar, half-speed brilliance from Lionel Messi.
PSG defended in numbers, sat deep and cashed in their three-goal first leg lead with a 1-1 draw. They were given an easier ride by the astonishing wastefulness of Ousmane Dembélé in front of goal. The attacker was all fine movement and half-baked finishing, missing four good chances in the first half. Paris were deserved victors and will regroup and refocus for the next round. The real story, though, was Messi, whose every exit from this tournament is a kind of death for the neutral spectator, all the more so as he enters his own end-game.
Here Messi scored a brilliant goal. He missed a penalty. He looked what he is, an ageing don in a mix-and-match team in a state of rebuild. Indeed, with Cristiano Ronaldo knocked out on Tuesday, it will be tempting for some to see “a changing of the guard”, with Kylian Mbappé, who scored a penalty here, his fourth goal of the tie, one of the nominated successors.
It is worth looking at this in the round. There will always be wonderful footballers, but the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly is something else entirely. Messi in particular is unique, a mooching little genius, capable of things even now that are beyond the scope of the normal, mortal best in the world. Nobody is carrying this particular flame anywhere in a hurry.
Barcelona arrived bruised from that 4-1 home shellacking in the first leg, and hungover from a poor night’s sleep after the Paris police were called to the team hotel at 5am to arrest a PSG fan who had set off the fire alarm.
With three minutes gone Mbappé had his first surging, gliding run down the left. But it was Barcelona who drove the game from the start, creating nine chances in the first half, when they really might have turned this tie.
Dembélé was lively, bright, menacing and wildly frustrating coming in off the left. It was a trip on Dembélé that led to a free-kick that Messi lifted just over the bar. Another fine run created an opening but he could only scuff a shot too close to Keylor Navas.
Messi was everywhere, dropping deep into midfield, finding the usual telling angles with his passes. The problem for Barça was the obvious one. Every time they held the ball Mbappé would linger on the halfway line and get ready to run, confident in his own irresistible cutting edge one on one, or even two on one.
It was an open high-stakes defensive game on both sides, with Dembélé running beyond the Paris defence repeatedly at the other end, and repeatedly scuffing his chances. Messi produced the perfect stubbed, spinning outside-of-the-boot through pass. Dembélé ran into space again. Again the shot was weak.
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Then, with 28 minutes gone, there was relief for Paris. It came via essentially from nowhere, awarded by the referee, Anthony Taylor, after watching pitchside replays of Clément Lenglet stepping on the back of Leandro Paredes’ heel. Mbappé stepped up and smashed the kick into the corner.
Barcelona made it 1-1 seven minutes later. This was a stunning, gorgeous, thrilling goal. It was Messi, who took the ball, shifted it into place with one touch, then cut across the ball to send it dipping and swerving away from Navas and into a traumatised top corner. Rarely can a ball have been struck with more power from standing start in this ground. It was an angry goal. This, Ousmane, is how you finish.
And on half-time it might have been 2-1. Mr Taylor awarded another penalty, as Layvin Kurzawa and Antoine Griezmann both waved a foot at a bouncing ball and Griezmann fell over. Messi took the kick, and hit it hard and straight, but saw it well saved by Navas.
Mauricio Pochettino made an effort to condense his team a little higher up the pitch after the break, but Barcelona continued to dominate. Frenkie de Jong, deployed by Ronald Koeman as a central defender in a 3-4-3, began to drive forward with real craft. Pedri was clever in possession. Messi was crowded out in front of goal after a fine through pass from Jordi Alba, Marquinhos sliding in. But with an hour gone Barcelona had taken 72% of the ball and 18 shots at goal, but still not made a dent in their three-goal aggregate deficit.
Pochettino’s substitutions tightened his team’s grip. Barcelona will take heart from their performance, but this always felt like a farewell lap.
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