Mbappe and PSG face fight to keep Champions League dream alive

Published April 16, 2024
BARCELONA: Pedri (second L) of Barcelona and team-mates attend a training session on Monday.—AFP
BARCELONA: Pedri (second L) of Barcelona and team-mates attend a training session on Monday.—AFP

BARCELONA: The spectre of another disappointing exit from the Champions League hangs over Paris St Germain after a 3-2 first-leg defeat at home left them with a fight to turn around their quarter-final tie against Barcelona in Tuesday’s return.

At first, nobody realistically expected this PSG side, in transition with a rejuvenated squad following last year’s departures of Lionel Messi and Neymar, to go on and win the Champions League this season.

But the realisation that Kylian Mbappe would not be staying beyond the end of his contract after this campaign helped concentrate minds, with the superstar forward informing the club of his plans after the win over Real Sociedad in the last 16.

Then came the draw for the last eight and semi-finals, which presented the French champions with a favourable path to reach the final.

Luis Enrique’s side, who had been unconvincing in scraping through their group but came into the first leg against Barcelona on a 27-game unbeaten run stretching back five months, were saved from any prospect of meeting Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Arsenal before the final.

Victory against a Barca side who are not the force of old would set up a last-four tie against either Atletico Madrid or Borussia Dortmund, the kindest draw possible even if neither team could ever be taken lightly.

However, PSG’s performance against Barcelona last Wednesday made clear Luis Enrique’s side are far from the complete team, and their most important player is not in his best form.

Mbappe has scored 39 goals this season and the Parisians need him on his game if they are to go all the way and end the France captain’s seven-year stay at the club by winning European football’s greatest prize for the first time.

But Mbappe did not play well in the first leg against Barca, failing to hit the target from three shots, losing the ball 13 times and being caught offside three times.

Mbappe, however, scored a hat-trick in his last visit to Barcelona, in 2021, and Barca manager Xavi Hernandez said that his side will need to be nearly flawless in the second leg at the club’s temporary Olympic Stadium home on the city’s Montjuic hill to reach the semi-finals for the first time in five years.

“It’s going to be a major football war,” Xavi told a press conference on Monday. “We are not a team that speculates, we will want to take the ball away from PSG and win the game. Hopefully we’ll be at our best. They’re going to demand a lot from us.”

The victory in Paris was Barca’s first win in the Champions League knockout stage in four years and left them full of confidence as they reached six consecutive victories in all competitions.

They are unbeaten since losing 5-3 at home to Villarreal in LaLiga in January that led to Xavi announcing he was stepping down as manager at the end of what then looked like a difficult season.

Now, 13 competitive games without a loss later, including a commanding performance in the French capital to end PSG’s 27-game unbeaten run, Tuesday’s challenge seems to have presented itself at the perfect time.

“Happy to be where we are, proud to be where we are. I think it’s a good moment and I’m excited. We feel it already,” Xavi said.

HOME COMFORTS FOR DORTMUND

In Tuesday’s other quarter-final second leg, Atletico will need to hold out in front of Dortmund’s storied ‘Yellow Wall’ if they are to get back to the semi-finals for the first time since 2017.

Dortmund trail 2-1 after the first leg in Madrid but manager Edin Terzic backed his team to turn the tables in front of their 81,500-seat Westfalenstadion crowd and the famous ‘Yellow Wall’ south stand.

“When you go out onto the pitch in front of that stadium and start your warm-up, you are obliged to give everything and show your best,” Terzic told reporters on Monday. “It’s unique. It’s regularly sold out and it has helped us countless times over the years.

“Before we make a transfer we talk to them and try and show what it means to play for Borussia Dortmund in this stadium. We need a good result against Atletico and we’re pretty sure our supporters want to make that happen and create a good atmosphere. So we want to pay them back.”

The 1997 winners are looking to return to the semi-finals for the first time since 2013, when the Jurgen Klopp-coached side went down 2-1 to arch rivals Bayern Munich in the Wembley final.

Dortmund’s league campaign has been disappointing after almost winning the Bundesliga last season but the team has shone in the Champions League, finishing top of a group containing PSG, AC Milan and Saudi-owned Newcastle United and then finishing the job against PSV Eindhoven at home to reach the quarter-finals.

They will be buoyed by Atle­t­ico’s poor form away from the Metropolitano this season.

Diego Simeone’s men have won just five from 15 in the league. Atletico have won just one of four in Europe this season and have not kept a clean sheet away from home.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2024

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