As soon as Lionel Messi picked up the ball 35 yards out from goal and started dribbling towards it, it was obvious what was unfolding. We have all seen it countless times before for Barcelona, but never before with the Argentine in another club’s shirt. The way Messi finished Paris Saint-Germain’s second goal against Manchester City after a trademark one-two on the edge of the box proved he is still the same player after all.
There had been doubts. Having made the shock switch to the Parc des Princes in the summer, Messi had yet to provide solid evidence that he will perform at the same level for his new team as he did for Barca, drawing a blank in his first three PSG games. He wasn’t about to go four games without a goal, though.
Messi drifted in and out of Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with City. He didn’t create a single ‘big chance,’ as they are categorised by data collectors, nor did he have a shot on goal for the first 74 minutes of the match. But when the time came, and he fired off his one and only shot, Messi delivered the big moment.
Marseille at risk of point deduction after nine police injured in clashes with fans
- Lionel Messi opens PSG account in style as Manchester City are seen off in Paris
- Pep Guardiola calls PSG's Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar 'unstoppable'
Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Messi all combined as the latter struck the goal that settled the game at 2-0, hinting at the devastating potential of Mauricio Pochettino’s team. PSG have still to find the right balance, but the win over Manchester City gave the clearest indication yet of the player Messi will be for them.
PSG haven’t signed the Messi of old who used to dominate games all on his own. Now 34, he no longer has the physicality to do this. Instead, Messi has fine-tuned his game in order to stay as productive as possible in the final third, where he can still have the biggest influence on the outcome of matches. For every stunning strike or match-winning goal, there is a 10-minute spell of hands-on-hips lethargy. This is the bargain PSG have made.
'I am in love!' - Guardiola lauds 'exceptional' Verratti after PSG win over City
In a sense, the way Messi plays is a reflection of how this PSG team plays as a whole. Frequently, there are moments of passiveness, sometimes even distintest, followed by flashes of brilliance. This might not sound like much of a winning formula yet PSG have won nine of the 10 games they have played so far this season despite criticism of their performances.
Others besides Messi impressed against City. While PSG can be passive out of possession, Idrissa Gueye was very proactive in making sure City were unable to play their way through the home team. He was the one willing to step out from the backline to make an interception or press an opposition player once they found themselves in a dangerous position.
The way Pochettino has used Gueye, who scored PSG's first goal against City, and Ander Herrera to balance out his otherwise top-heavy team this season has been reminiscent of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s use of the much-maligned ‘McFred’ pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay as a midfield base behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho and the rest.
Le but d'Idrissa Gueye (PSG) face à Manchester City
Image credit: Getty Images
However, Herrera and Gueye in particular contribute enough on both sides of the ball to make a double pivot work. It would be an oversimplification of Gueye’s qualities to label him a defensive midfielder. While it’s certainly true that the 32-year-old offers protection in front of the back four, he also has the attacking instinct to burst forward whenever possible. Manchester City experienced this more than once.
The final outcome could have been very different had City demonstrated a sharper cutting edge in front of goal. Indeed, the Premier League champions were wasteful. It also didn’t help them that Gianluigi Donnarumma, making only his second start for PSG after signing from AC Milan in the summer, was in sparkling form. The Italian got a hand or foot to everything that came his way.
City’s superiority was reflected in the statistics, with Pep Guardiola’s side finishing with more shots (six to 18), more possession (46% to 54%) and a significantly higher Expected Goals value (0.46 to 1.9). They lacked one thing their opponents had, though. PSG are far from perfect, but they have Messi and sometimes that’s all that matters.
PSG and Marseille play out Classique stalemate
Inside Europe: Who will win El Clasico? Has game lost lustre? Which youngsters could star?