“They, looks like a PlayStation team. It seemed significant that Giorgio Chiellini’s assessment of the current Paris Saint-Germain squad, offered in an interview with The team this week was meant to be a compliment or at least something close to it.
As Manchester City travel to Paris for what is, on paper, their toughest Champions League group game, it would be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by opponents who are still struggling to adjust to the presence of their new No.30 shirt, also known as the greatest club footballer of all time.
Six weeks and two starts in his new club career, Lionel Messi has had very little tangible effect on the playing field. The inaugural outing of the top three most glitzy in football history ended there is two weeks with Neymar-Messi-Mbappé collecting fewer shots on target between them than the second Club Brugge striker.
Messi suffers from a left knee injury which caused him to miss the victory over Montpellier this weekend. He trained on Sunday. Under these circumstances, a normal, everyday superstar would be described as ‘likely to be on the bench’. Messi is 100% certain to be there, if only for the eyes, the likes, the close-ups and the first global opportunity to integrate this iconography into the PSG brand.
This has been history so far in the absence of any significant action. Shortly after Messi’s first unveiling, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was already talking about the “incredible numbers” the club expect to generate. The most startling commentary on his summer move to date has been a blizzard of economic data, with many details about the old chestnut that players like Messi are “paying for themselves,” that his trading income is of a such magnitude that they can offset its costs (50 million euros this year, 25 million euros per year thereafter).
The six-time Ballon d’Or winner may not have managed to score a goal or offer any ease, but hey, in the last few weeks the club have announced a new crypto partner, a social media partner. , an official vape partner, well-being drinks partner, official “multi-asset broker” partner (no, me neither) and a fashion deal with Christian Dior. Plus, of course, an official used car trading partner of PSG, who already promises to use players in their ads, though that could lead to some dramatic credibility issues as Neymar, Mbappé and Messi compare their experiences the non-bargaining warranty for bumper scratches on a 17-plate Ford Focus.
And now, finally, we have this: football with a hard side. It is a match that PSG will consider with a little anxiety. Mauricio Pochettino’s team is surely too rich in talent to have any real problems escaping from Group A. But there is still room for a quickening of the pulse. Lose tonight and PSG will be in third place and at least two points behind if the other group game produces a positive result.
The club’s Qatari ownership rejected the idea of a European Super League because of (it is said here) their enduring belief in the sport’s glorious uncertainty. In an obliging twist, the team have the opportunity over the next few weeks to explore exactly that premise, beating it with RB Leipzig and Brugge while fielding half a billion dollars in strikers.
This is of course a distant prospect. PSG tended to reserve their dizziness for the knockout stages. Yet this iteration of the Messi era remains an unsolved puzzle. To date, PSG have scored twice in 190 combined minutes with Messi on the pitch and only once in open play. Without Messi this season, they average one goal every half hour.
Each new player takes a long time to settle in. Messi is 34, 17 in his elite career, tactically sui generis, and adapt to a very physical and tough league. He looked thoughtful and a little slow on the toss, but there won’t be any real concern at this point. This is a signing based on the idea that genius conquers everything, normal rules won’t apply, and Messi is so good that any problem that arises will simply go away.
For now, tactical concerns remain. The PSG version of Neymar already occupies the same space that Messi naturally fills. Neymar’s vice is to slow down the game. Messi always acts as an accelerator. He’s smart enough to figure out how to make this work. The real problem against a side of City’s quality will come from the fact that PSG’s three star strikers only really play in the future.
Who, exactly, is going to push back here, stifle the counter, equalize the overloads on the flanks? City parted PSG over two innings in last season’s semi-final, overcoming a period of first-leg pressure to mercilessly expose the weak seams behind. By the end of the second game, the PSG midfielder was playing in a red haze, bewildered by his unusual inability to control the game. How, exactly, is the emergence of another possession-dependent striker going change that?
The answer is quite simple: genius, old man. Magic on the ball, and a goal a pretty close match. These things tend to cover a few cracks. Moreover, of course, Pochettino has now had time to work in his squad and has a more powerful central midfielder with Idrissa Gueye and Georginio Wijnaldum available.
For now, the other half of Chiellini’s quote seems just as significant: “If they can put team interests ahead of individual interests, they will be unbeatable. This remains an “if” key. There was already a sarcastic ego moment this week. As Mbappé left the field against Montpellier, he was lip-read saying “This tramp, he does not give me the pass.” The tramp in question being Neymar.
City are hoping to add some fuel to this state of uncertainty. Their manager will know better than anyone in football that PSG have the ability, even on the bench, to change that narrative in an instant.