David Beckham, with that characteristic mix of glamour and serenity, looked so natural and comfortable on Tuesday night, playing a European Cup quarter-final, it seemed implausible that this was his first one for nine years.
But so it was, Beckham's move to Paris Saint-Germain giving him the chance to compete in the Champions League again. PSG and Los Angeles Galaxy are not entirely dissimilar but this competition is a radical difference, the United States offering nothing close to the world's finest club tournament.
"It was great," said Beckham, with his usual post-match polish, afterwards. "To be part of occasions like this is obviously always special. I've not played in the Champions League for a few years so to be back in it, to be playing against a team and players like this is special."
Beckham did play a last 16-tie for Milan against Manchester United on loan in 2010 but before then it was for Real Madrid that he last played a quarter-final in this competition, when the famous Galacticos team with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo was knocked out on away goals by Monaco.
Having not done much in the Champions League, then, for some time, Beckham clearly revelled in the occasion. The noise, the stakes, the capacity crowd of 45,000, the chance to battle all-time greats Andres Iniesta and Xavi, even the anthem must have stirred something in him. There are only so many matches like this each season – that is precisely the point of them – and this time Beckham was not watching from California but out there and part of it.
And as much as Beckham enjoyed this, the second leg, at the Nou Camp, will be something else. Paris, at heart, is not much of a football city and Parc des Princes, loud as it was on Tuesday, is not a traditional football ground. Barcelona, though, can claim to be the best football city in Europe, one passionately intertwined with a historically great team. And at the heart of it, the Nou Camp, where Beckham will return next Wednesday.
"It's always good, it's always good," said Beckham of the famous Barcelona atmosphere. "It's even better when you win there. It's never going to be easy going there but it's going to be a nice game to play there."
Beckham, of course, has particularly strong memories of Barcelona's stadium. It was there, nearly 14 years ago, that he was part of the unimaginable climax to Manchester United's unprecedented treble. "Winning the European Cup – it wasn't against Barcelona, but that is my greatest memory of playing at the Nou Camp."
He also played and won there with his second club, Real Madrid. He recalled a triumph from December 2003 with goals from Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. "When we beat them there 2-1, it was the first time Real Madrid had beaten them there for quite a few years, so that was special too."
This time it is likely to be even more difficult than those two occasions. Paris need to win to reach the semi-finals, unless they can spring a bizarre draw of 3-3 or more to progress on away goals.
"It is going to be tough there but it won't be impossible," Beckham said. "It's never easy playing against players like the midfield they've got. Because they pass the ball around well and you're constantly chasing because they're so comfortable on the ball."
Beckham, though, must be a near-certainty to start. Blaise Matuidi, his co-anchor on Tuesday, is suspended for the second leg. Thiago Motta should be back from injury so Carlo Ancelotti will likely have to choose between the canny Motta and the younger, more artful Marco Verratti, unless he plays both alongside Beckham and drops a forward.
Ancelotti's decision to pick Beckham, which was a surprise on Tuesday, was certainly rewarded on the pitch. For 70 minutes Beckham led Paris's attempts to restrict Barcelona, playing with the careful maturity everyone expected as he closed down space and tried to win possession back, at one point even chasing down Lionel Messi and shrugging him off the ball.
When Paris had the ball, they were efficient too, setting up counter-attacks that on a luckier day would have sent them in front. "I played him because of his ability to play forward passes and change the game," Ancelotti explained. "In the first 30 minutes he was the key as he was playing good football."
Sporting director Leonardo was even more enthusiastic. "On an individual level, it's incredible what we did," he said. "The performances of Thiago Silva, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, Lucas Moura, Beckham and Matuidi were incredible." Naturally enough, Beckham tired, got booked and was taken off for 20-year-old Verratti, the player he had relegated to the bench. The change brought extra energy but Beckham had been an important part of Paris's initial approach.
Tuesday was a special night, and next Wednesday should be much the same. But it is not certain there will be many more of these for Beckham. He turns 38 next month and whether he is still playing for Paris for another shot at the Champions League is unclear.
"We'll see, we'll see," he said when asked about his plans for 2013/14. "I've spoken to the owners and I've spoken to the manager, I know how happy they are with me, and they know how happy I am here. But I'm not getting any younger, so I'll enjoy the rest of the season and then we'll sit down and talk." This return to the highest stage might just be a brief cameo.
View from France 'not a great choice'
* David Beckham's return to the Champions League drew negative reaction from the French press.
"Beckham: the gamble that didn't pay off" [Le Parisien]
The Spice Boy was preferred to [Marco] Verratti. Beckham found things difficult after the break. By placing Beckham in the team, PSG wanted to exploit the precision of his long balls to disrupt the Barcelona defence. He only managed to achieve this rarely. Ancelotti's gamble was not a great choice. The experienced Englishman did not offer the return on Paris's investment in him.
Beckham 'one-paced' and 'never in it'
L'Equipe gave the Englishman a rating of 3/10, saying he was "notably poor" in the build-up to Lionel Messi's goal. "He didn't make much impact, lacked rhythm and was off the pace." The paper also claimed he was "one-paced" and left team-mate Blaise Matuidi "to fight for both of them" in midfield. "Apart from two or three free-kicks, he was never in it".
Messi targets PSG return leg
Lionel Messi will miss Barcelona’s La Liga match against Mallorca this weekend because of his hamstring injury, but may be fit to play in the Champions League return leg against Paris Saint-Germain. Messi was substituted at half-time of Tuesday’s 2-2 draw against PSG in Paris, having scored the first goal of the game.
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