The final score doesn’t bother me as much as the way the final score came about.
So many of us went into this match thinking that Barça had something, was going to show something — a spine, a backbone, some sort of readiness to play a knockout tie in the Champions League. So many of us came out of this match thinking that we would never see something sadder than Bayern last year, and yet we did. What we saw is a team that has lost everything.
There was a time, like that night many years ago, when the Camp Nou, when Barça had a mystique. Teams were worried, almost giving up a goal as soon as they set foot on that manicured pitch. Today, PSG wasn’t worried. They capered about like it was a training session. They got to every loose ball first, outran every Barça player. Yes, they were hungrier, had something to prove after their last visit to Camp Nou resulted in a historic remuntada for Barça.
But PSG was also more capable. They didn’t pass the torch as much as yank it from Barça’s hands, just as Mbappe may have yanked best player from Messi’s hands. All in one match, one lacerating, eviscerating display that saw Barça second best in every phase of the game.
For years, since Pep Guardiola’s teams, supporters have clung to the illusion of technicians and their superiority over physical brutes. We scoff at big, strong lanky mids who can run like gazelles and have ball skills. “We just need to play the right way,” we’d say, and nod smugly. But football changed, just as sport in general has. Players that used to be big in the NFL are now midsized. Same with the NBA. It used to be that 6’10” tall forwards were power forwards. Now they lead the break, can shoot the three and break a guard down off the dribble. Sport is an evolutionary process that always weeds out the unfit through natural selection. The NFL has 300-pound men who can run the 40 in 5 seconds.
When Guardiola’s teams marauded through trophy after trophy, the game was always going to adapt. Players got stronger, faster and more technically skilled. And match after match, knockout after knockout, Barça got outeverythinged and we consoled outselves with the the Single Player Illusion, the idea that the team is still good, still has Messi, still has Busquets, still has … It just needs to get rid of that single player that is holding everything back. For many, that player is Dembele. For still others, it’s Griezmann. Or Coutinho. Or pick your center back.
Koeman rolled out with an XI that must have had Pochettino clapping his hands in glee. His team had athletes, Barça had has-beens and possiblys, maybe someday. Starting Dest in a match like this is suicide. He got rinsed. But so did everyone else. For the one PSG goal, a player ran by Griezmann so fast, all the Frenchman could do was trot a bit, then just watch them score. Pique came back from a knee injury straight into the XI. Passive, clunky Lenglet partnered him. Alba was Alba, Messi invisible, Griezmann his usual frustrating self and Dembele gave people a new reason to hate him: He’s a piss-poor fullback, which isn’t even his job.
Meanwhile, PSG dismantled a team that doesn’t put in work, that more sadly, can’t put in work. Football has changed. Mbappe is fast. Absurdly fast. But he’s also a technically gifted player who is at his best when Neymar is absent, an increasingly frequent occurrence. Tonight, Mbappe staked his claim to best player in football. He led his team, dominated the match, scored almost at will in a fantastic display by a team that had to work harder against Nice on the weekend. His equalizer effectively ended the tie. The ball went in and Barça went out. The second was even easier, the third an unmarked header, the fourth a golazo where three Barça defenders converged on the ball, leaving Mbappe essentially unmarked. Training ground stuff.
Koeman made subs, but what could those subs do at that point. Mingueza came on, a better defender than Dest, so PSG just switched to the left, where they could victimize Alba. That also worked. Everything worked. Everything. Barça had nothing. No answers, no spine, no ability, no nothing. They couldn’t even do the technical stuff because everybody moved too slowly. So PSG would just walk from side to side, collect the ball, feed a gazelle and off they went, to exorcise their demons, to go for the 1-6 scoreline as the ultimate insult. Only Ter Stegen kept that from happening, but even he isn’t what he once was, standing passively in net, waiting to die. He no longer charges attackers, doesn’t control his area, playing like a keeper with no faith in his defense. And why should he have faith in a team that, against quality opposition with something on the line, lacks faith in itself.
Athletic Club in the SuperCopa, Sevilla in the Copa and now PSG in Champions League. Three knockout matches, three KOs and only one opponent really had to put out, the bearded Basques. And at the end of it all, a dejected De Jong, who could see more clearly than any of us could what transpired, stared off into the distance, probably looking for the dreams that he had when he came to FC Barcelona.
And now is the time for lashing out. Koeman, Dembele, Griezmann, take your pick. No lashes here, just sadness and a shrug of inevitability. It was the end of an era years ago, but each and every season we would think that maybe, just maybe with Messi and a little help from the others, something magic could happen. And the hope of the supporter is so eternal that we even ignored the obvious signs. When the club signed Dest we said, “Aha, a right back,” instead of realizing that Bayern had it right in seeking him as an apprentice, a player for the future rather than the present. He started, failed and showed us that Dembele is a pretty weak fullback, which is something we should never have had to find out.
And now, at the end, it isn’t a transfer here or a transfer there. It’s the rebuilding that should have begun after Rome, that really should have begun after Anfield. It’s the rebuilding that was delayed because a board skilled at nothing except spending money then finding new sponsors, just papered over cracks with transfers that placated for a bit. PSG showed us reality. Busquets is done. Pique is done. Alba as well. Players on big salaries are going to prevent the kind of clearing out that should happen, but we can suspect that one player will kick start the dominoes falling in Messi. No way he stays after today and honestly, you wonder if he even should. Let him go find the happiness in new possibilities, and hope that the new president doesn’t find himself worried about angering fans by doing what needs to be done.
We have hung on for too long now, like the formerly wealthy person who never leaves the house and doesn’t know the world has changed. PSG kicked open the door and showed everyone how things are. The torch has been passed. And that’s that.