ON Tuesday night in Paris, it was all about Lionel Messi. Of course it was.
After 672 goals for Barcelona, a first one for Paris St Germain, and a classic Messi show-stopper to settle a Champions League match against Manchester City, their fellow filthy-rich arrivistes.
But Paris St Germain are not favourites to lift the European Cup in St Petersburg next May merely because of their little old GOAT – nor even his fellow Galacticos, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
Behind those three amigos, Pep Guardiola’s men found a serious-minded midfield and defence, as well as a goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, who was England’s heartbreaker and the Player of the Tournament at the Euros.
Mauricio Pochettino still has much work to do to meld PSG into a formidable team unit – City were the better team for long stages of their 2-0 defeat at Parc des Princes.
But the former Tottenham boss has one of the mightiest squads ever assembled at his disposal.
Against City, Marco Verratti – another Italian who was key to denying Gareth Southgate’s men a trophy this summer – was magnificent in the midfield anchor role.
In front of him, former Premier League operators Ander Herrerra and Idrissa Gueye – who netted a belting opener – also have the defensive nous to counter-balance those flair merchants up top.
Gini Wijnaldum, whose absence is felt keenly at Liverpool, couldn’t make the starting line-up, and neither could Argentine Leandro Paredes, another world-class defensive midfielder.
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In defence, Presnel Kimpembe provided Raheem Sterling with a second skin in a man-marking which would have been the envy of a presidential bodyguard.
Kimpembe is a dirty-working old-school central defender, but he is not even the nastiest on Pochettino’s roster.
Sergio Ramos – Real Madrid’s long-term bastard-in-chief and bogeyman of Anfield after his hatchet job on Mo Salah in the 2018 final – also arrived in Paris this summer. When he is fit, he will make Paris even tougher to defeat.
The full-backs, Achraf Hakimi, a title-winner with Inter Milan last season, and the dynamic teenager Nuno Mendes, on loan from Sporting Lisbon, have improved PSG.
These two feel like proper Poch signings. When his Tottenham team came to prominence, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were the best full-back pairing in the Premier League and he values strength in that area more than most coaches.
In his post-match press conference, Pochettino fielded many questions from the French press about having alleviated pressure on his job.
This despite PSG having won eight out of eight in Ligue 1 – seeing them nine points clear by the end of September.
Surrendering the title to Lille last term was ridiculous, given PSG’s financial might. Poch knows that regaining the domestic crown is an absolute non-negotiable.
Failure to defeat Bruges in their Champions League opener was treated like a crisis in the French capital.
That’s because the wealth of this club, state-funded by Qatar, is obscene – and it shows in their squad strength.
FFP? FFS, no.
Argentine goal machine Mauro Icardi and his compatriot Angel Di Maria, a former Champions League final man of the match at Real Madrid, didn’t get a look in on Tuesday and neither did Julian Draxler, capped 56 times by Germany.
So while there have been two all-English Champions League finals in the last three seasons, and with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus all weakened, Premier League clubs can never fully dominate Europe’s elite competition while PSG are allowed to stockpile so much talent.
There was plenty of talk before the City match over whether Pochettino – a demanding manager, who ran Spurs like a sweatshop and built such a unified team there – really was the man to lead this celebrity project in Paris.
But it is not as if his famous front three were swanning around performing like a free-form jazz trio all night against City.
While Neymar’s improv routines were over-indulgent at times, there was no absence of defensive work from Mbappe.
Messi, meanwhile, dropped deep into midfield, popped up as right-back cover and even acted as the ‘draft excluder’ in a defensive wall late on. Some prima donna.
Messi had been relatively quiet until that burst of pace, that one-two with the backheel of Mbappe, and that sumptuous finish which left Ederson frozen and almost broke the internet as it flashed across the globe.
It was Messi’s ‘welcome to Paris’ moment. The Parc went wild and the world took heed.
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