By Samindra Kunti in Paris
September 29 – It took 74 minutes and it’s what Paris Saint-Germain had been waiting for – divine intervention from their newly acquired genius. Lionel Messi delivered a sumptuous finish after quick interplay with Kylian Mbappe to ensure a 2-0 win for the hosts against English champions Manchester City to top Group A in the Champions League.
The Parc des Princes revelled in the magic and victory, the result of a thrilling and frantic encounter in which PSG were often dysfunctional and City lacked a cutting edge up front. Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling were underwhelming. Kevin De Bruyne looked unfit.
In the 8th minute, Idrissa Gueye opened the score, slamming the ball in from close range. The defensive midfielder and Marco Verratti carried the match for PSG.
Messi was often peripheral, playing in a staccato manner. Even a player of his unrivalled quality, skill and experience needs time – and fitness – to blend in, but Mauricio Pochettino will have been concerned by Messi’s tendency, and that of his entire frontline, to not defend. His team was defending in and around the box with seven men. Neymar, Mbappe and Messi failed to be the first line of defence. There was no tracking back or defending in unison.
It’s precisely how City has become such a formidable outfit in the past seasons, with a well-defined idea of play. It’s the kind of intensity and pressing Pochettino wanted his Tottenham team to apply. On the face of it, PSG don’t play the Pochettino way, but then who of the three superstars is going to track back? Had Pochettino allowed his frontline the liberty to ignore any defensive duties? They seemed to stroll around too often.
It’s the difference between PSG and Manchester City. One club is built around Pep Guardiola’s philosophy, the other around star power and the idea that individual brilliance can overcome whatever it encounters. That may work work in Ligue 1, but it has not been proven in the Champions League where having three passive players, whenever out of possession, seems too much of a luxury.
In the second half, PSG remained strangely discombobulated as if fielding two different teams altogether – one hellbent on defending a precious lead and the other one on doing pretty much nothing.
But all of those considerations and concerns became irrelevant as Messi’s demonstrated that he remains an inexorable force with his supreme strike in the 74th minute. Everything around him seemed to speed up: those little whirring feet, the lethal burst of acceleration, the quick passing and, ultimately, that finish of beguiling beauty.
“I celebrated tonight,” said Pochettino. “I don’t usually celebrate goals. It’s internalised. Tonight, I let out a cheer.”
It was hard on City, but somehow fitting of the disorienting, dislocated era of modern football in which individual class sometimes trumps systems and ideas. Messi finally showed that he belongs in Paris, kickstarting what could perhaps be the new era or European dominance longed for by the Qatari club owners.
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