Lionel Messi took his first steps as a Paris Saint-Germain player on Sunday, coming in as a substitute in the 63rd minute when his new team won in Reims thanks to two goals from Kylian Mbappé. Whether that pair will play together again is an open question, and Real Madrid are still eager to get the Frenchman out this week. Even Messi’s power of attraction is not unlimited. But he’s powerful nonetheless, as his Ligue 1 debut confirmed.
This was an appropriate place for Messi to take his bow. Where better to start such a high-class recruit than in the capital of the Champagne region? And let’s not forget that for more than 1,000 years Reims was the city where France consecrated its kings, from Louis the Pious in 816 to Charles X in 1825. In 2021, here is Lionel the Goat. Messi the only one.
Something curious about Carlos X. He ascended to the throne at a time of renewed contempt for the monarchy. He tried to reaffirm his legitimacy by claiming that he had inherited the “royal touch,” a God-given ability to perform miracles. He was a fraud and his Carlantism contributed to the downfall of the regime he had tried to revive. PSG has Messi and his undoubted magic, even if it is waning, having the opposite effect.
This was a royal visit that the masses did not want to miss. Reims’ average home attendance in the last full season where crowds were allowed was less than 13,000. His first game this season drew less than that, just 8,887 for a draw with Montpellier. But as soon as the news broke that Messi could come to town, 20,525 tickets were bought.
Messi started on the bench because he is still toning up for not playing since the Copa América final in July, or because Mauricio Pochettino is a great joker. Instead, Ángel Di María filled the right tip of PSG’s attacking trident as Messi sat next to Gianluigi Donnarumma.
PSG started as if it wanted to put on a show. Right-back Achraf Hakimi, a less vaunted but excellent summer player, sent a quick pass to Mbappé in the 10th minute. The striker spun beautifully past his marker before breaking through.
Reims wanted to show that they too had talent. Ilan Kebbal crossed the midfield and fed to El Bilal Touré, who cut wide from 15 yards. Mbappé soon put them back in place, jumped high to head into the net from six meters after Di María threw the ball at him from the right.
As Gini Wijnaldum and Idrissa Gueye patrolled the midfield, where Marco Verratti pulled the strings like a master, PSG took control. This is a problem for them: domestic comfort makes preparation for the Champions League inadequate. And sometimes even they seem bored with their superiority: here they become careless. Although they often get their way in Ligue 1, last season’s failure to win the title should have taught them to fine tune at least a little. But Reims almost punished them before the break, Moreto Moreo Cassamá hit the post from 20 yards after Gueye absentmindedly handed him the ball.
Apparently, Pochettino was unable to wake up his players. Two minutes into the second half, the hosts celebrated the equalizer after Marshall Munesti shoved the ball into the net. The goal was disallowed after a lengthy VAR review. Soon the locals rejoiced again, this time because Messi began to improve. Bettors wanted to see him in action; and PSG needed it.
The vision of Messi preparing to join them convinced PSG to rebuild. They made it 2-0 just before his entry, Mbappé conceded from six meters after a center from Hakimi.
Then, amid cheers and chants from the entire crowd, Messi stepped onto the pitch for the first time as a Ligue 1 player. No one seemed to mind that he replaced Neymar, ruining the public’s hopes of seeing a rare lineup of stars; the opportunity will not return if Mbappé goes to Real.
Excitement pulsed through the crowd as Messi picked up the ball midway into the Reims half in the 77th minute. He ran towards the defense with that inimitable and disconcerting slip of short steps. When three defenders converged on him, he passed the ball to Mbappé, who – noblesse oblige – refused to shoot and tried to prepare Messi for the goal that even many home fans seemed to want. Reims got some satisfaction from getting in the way.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism