While the word “narrative” has become something of a cinder block sitting in the intestines of sports, sometimes you just can’t avoid how much it’s beating you over the head. Kylian Mbappé lining up against Real Madrid in the round of 16 in the Champions League was one of those times. Mbappé is still widely tipped to be heading there as a free agent next summer, and they’ve only been chasing him from about the time his balls dropped. The stories of his Ronaldo posters in his bedroom growing up in the Paris suburbs have become commonplace.
Still, when it comes to Real Madrid, there’s always an air about them, in their own heads, that it doesn’t matter until you do it against them. Mbappé has a World Cup winner’s medal, authored his own personal destruction of Barcelona last season, and is basically the next Best Player In The World if he isn’t already. But Madristas like to see it for themselves.
They certainly saw it in the first leg at the Parc de Princes when Mbappe was an utter terror down the left for PSG and capped off his peformance with a last-minute goal that gave the Parisians a 1-0 lead and also turned the soul of a couple Madrid defenders into a fine paste:
In the second leg Wednesday, Mbappé was no less a hydra, pilfering the entire right side of the Madrid defense. And he looked to have given PSG an insurmountable lead with yet another goal, where he so traumatized the Madrid defense that they gave him all this space to blow one through Madrid keeper Thibault Courtois like he was Daffy Duck declaring rabbit season (or duck season, as it eventually turned out.
The beauty of this is that Mbappé had been setting this up all first half. Two or three times he had received the ball on the break, and took either Militão or Carvahal or David Alaba to the touchline on his left foot and crossed for anyone with the sense to be there (which no one was). Alaba is preparing for another sprint to the endline here, giving Mbappé all the time he needs to blast it in at the near post.
Mbappeé was inches away from ending the whole tie in the second half, called offside right before he turned Courtois into a crash test dummy:
Mbappé was probably justified in thinking it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. 2-0 up with only half an hour to go, and Madrid to that point not having mustered much of anything in just about 150 minutes of soccer.
But this is PSG, and they can fuck up just about anything as long as you provide them enough room to fall flat on their face. It’s their way. When something goes wrong, it all goes wrong. Madrid brought on Eduardo Camavinga for the plodding Toni Kroos in midfield, and Rodrygo for Asensio, and suddenly Madrid were doing things that Spanish teams just don’t do. They played fast, they played direct, and they pressed. And PSG was apparently shocked to find that their opponents weren’t going to just sit down on the field and pick grass until the clock ran out. Marquinhos, symbolically PSG’s captain for this implosion, will have the most to explain as to where his brain leaked out to, but the entire PSG team took leave of their senses in the last half hour. It started with Madrid pressing keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma into this barf of a pass to no one, when Marquinhos nor Achraf Hakimi gave him any other choice:
Speaking of symbolism, it was hard to miss that Madrid’s second and equalizing goal started with Neymar doing nothing on the left wing, where Mbappe had been but swapped to the middle, before giving the ball away needlessly to Luka Modrić. And Modrić proceeds to set up this goal twice after being donated the ball:
And in perhaps the greatest example of tripping over your own dick to fall off a building, PSG contrived to give up the winning goal 11 seconds after the ensuing kickoff when they gave the ball away, and Marquinhos forgot how his legs worked:
You really have to try to give up a goal off your own kickoff. You could punt it straight from the center circle toward your own goal and it would only be a second or two quicker than this. This is a marvel of engineering really.
The headlines will go to Karim Benzema with his second-half hat-trick, and rightly so. As soon as Madrid turned up the volume, he was everywhere and even at 34 made life hell on every PSG defender. The finish for the third and winning goal is just stupid, not even needing a touch and using the outside of his right foot to perfectly place a bouncing and spinning ball coughed up to him by Marquinhos.
But a lot of space should be dedicated to Modric, too, as he’s two years older and yet was at the heart of just about everything Madrid did in the second half.
You couldn’t watch this and feel that it might just never happen for PSG. There is something in the DNA — whether it’s the weight of their recent history or the money the Qatari government has spent on them, or the complacency the French league instills them with — that will cause them to simply shit it whenever the lights are brightest. For all the records, reputation, and esteem that the front three of Neymar, Messi, and Mbappé have, its inertia when PSG don’t have the ball allowed Madrid to quickly pass by them and cave in their midfield when Madrid were trailing and upped the tempo. They weren’t much more than a turnstile as Real launched attacks and counters directly into the PSG half.
Neymar couldn’t produce anything other than a few dives and one freekick won after PSG went down. Messi wandered around the field, thinking he had left this kind of bullshit behind in Barcelona and wondering how it followed him to Paris. Even with Messi, this is a team full of guys who have now repeatedly “not done it,” and seem intent on finding new ways to not do it.
Next time PSG tries to scale the European mountain they keep tumbling down, they will almost certainly be without Mbappé, who can’t really do any more. He certainly doesn’t need this, and proved he belongs somewhere that is worthy of him. PSG seem intent on proving that it will never be them.