Sometimes, a game of soccer is less about the soccer itself than something seemingly peripheral.
As the titanic Real Madrid-Paris Saint Germain Champions League clash kicked off on Tuesday, both teams had already been assured of their places in the knockout stages. An injury-time Club Brugge equalizer against Galatasaray in Istanbul had seen to it that neither of them had a mathematical chance of advancing.
So this match, which ended in a 2-2 draw, wasn’t really about that, since seeding for the round of 16 doesn’t actually matter all that much.
In September, in their first meeting in Paris, PSG had fairly crushed the record 13-time European champions 3-0, sending manager Zinedine Zidane and his side into an early-season crisis amid howls that this Real was going nowhere fast. Real has since restored itself and is practically tied with Barcelona for the lead in La Liga.
But this game wasn’t really about exacting a measure of revenge either.
The buildup to this game between some of the finest outfits in the sport revolved almost entirely around a single player, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.
The French striker will only turn 21 in a few weeks but is already the second-most expensive player ever – behind teammate Neymar, but we’ll get to him. Tuesday, Mbappe made his 100th appearance for PSG, in which he has amassed a staggering 70 goals, 33 assists and five trophies. Inevitably, he’s now being pursued by Real Madrid.
And so the entertaining draw, which rather understated the superiority of the home team and the flatness of the Parisian visitors for most of the game, felt like a kind of first battle in the larger fight over Mbappe, which will surely rage until the summer.
Karim Benzema bagged the first of his brace of goals in the 17th minute with a beautiful finish, after the surprisingly sensational Isco’s shot pinged off the post, and got a second on an 79th-minute header (via Turner Sports):
PSG seemed dead and buried, before a stunning comeback saw Mbappe capitalize on clumsy defending in the 81st minute. Raphael Varane ran a low cross into his own goalkeeper and into the striker’s feet in front of an open goal:
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) November 26, 2019
Then in the 83rd minute, Pablo Sarabia, the rejected Real academy product, rifled an unstoppable shot into the upper 90 to even things:
2 goals in 3 minutes for PSG to level it 😱 pic.twitter.com/ihlZ4IhQOu
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) November 26, 2019
Real should have won. Gareth Bale smacked a free kick off the post with the final kick of the game. Both Isco and Benzema were denied on the doorstep by PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas early in the second half.
Navas keeping his club in the game was ironic, since he was also playing his former club, where president Florentino Perez insisted that the expensive Thibaut Courtois started in goal instead, driving Zidane to despair – and one of the reasons he resigned two summers ago, before returning in March.
Speaking of Courtois, he was lucky to avoid a first-half sending off when he took out Mauro Icardi in the box, clear as day. He was given a red card and PSG was given a penalty kick. But the Video Assistant Referee overruled both on account of a very soft foul by Idrissa Gueye on Marcelo earlier in the sequence.
More irony: Mbappe showed little but an early flash until he bundled in his fortunate goal. He then squandered an injury-time opportunity to tee up one of two teammates for the winner.
But the clubs are now locked in a tussle over his services. Real has, in one way or another, been pursuing Mbappe since he was 12 years old and trained with the club, regularly inviting him back and giving him first-class treatment. Ahead of the game, the typically coy Zidane professed of Mbappe that “I am in love with him. … He’s a PSG player but he has said that his dream was to play for Real Madrid.”
Separately, Real star Eden Hazard declared that “if tomorrow I was able to bring him to Real Madrid, I would try.”
PSG was predictably dismayed. “Unfortunately for Zidane, Mbappe is our player,” manager Thomas Tuchel said.
“It’s annoying, [Zidane] should stop,” PSG sporting director Leonardo echoed. “It’s not the time to talk about dreams and all that, it’s not the time to destabilize everything.”
Mbappe’s sizable contract runs for two and a half more years but PSG is reportedly trying to extend it, hoping a massive pay bump will keep him around for another year. And this nervousness over a player with considerable time left on his deal underscores his outsized value.
When he joined from Monaco in 2017, initially on a loan-to-buy deal to evade Financial Fair Play regulations, he very much existed in Neymar’s shadow. But now, the talk is all about Mbappe while Neymar, recently returned from injury, didn’t even get onto the field until a half-time substitution. (His first Champions League appearance of the calendar year, in fact.) Just last summer, Real had flirted with signing Neymar – mostly because his former club Barca wanted him back – and PSG seemed perfectly happy to let him go.
Mbappe is very much the centerpiece of the PSG project now, of its yearning, and that of its Qatari owners, to dominate not only France but all of Europe. And so the battle for his services has become a kind of proxy for the fight between soccer’s aristocratic clubs and the new money.
On the balance of the two legs, PSG has won that fight with a big victory and Tuesday’s comeback. It has won Group A as well. But it has yet to win the Champions League. And if, in the end, it can’t hang on to Mbappe, it will show that the gap isn’t yet closed.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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