It had to be him. The occasion had required it. The crowd had come to see him and they had spent most of this Champions League box office tie wishing it would happen. And then it did.
By the time Lionel Messi regained possession and scuttled from the right to the beat, trading passes with Kylian Mbappé, Manchester City had split. There was an opportunity. Paris Saint-Germain were 1-0 up, despite City having the best of the last 73 minutes. Now, could the master choose the upper corner of the edge of the area to ensure victory?
It was a silly question, especially for Pep Guardiola, who has seen this movie before, over and over again. Of course Messi could. It seemed to happen in slow motion, a movement of the left boot and the ball flying unerringly past Ederson before the explosion of home support.
The phones came out as PSG fans captured the moment I was there with the camera. Guardiola’s shoulders sagged. No player has scored more goals against his teams than Messi, his former Barcelona protégé. Now it’s seven out of five games. This was Messi’s goal in the Champions League at the Parc des Princes and how he had delivered it.
He was cruel to City, who had given in early to a rocket Idrissa Gueye and then asked a lot of questions. PSG had reason to thank another new signing, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, for a series of saves. In the end, however, the tie would be defined by Messi’s magical moment.
City had focused on managing the occasion, on trying to impose its quality as it had done on its previous visit to this stadium. That was in the first leg of last season’s semi-final when they won 2-1 to take a significant step towards the final.
A big difference. The park was empty at the time. Now it throbbed with noise and color. The benchmark for the intensity of European football atmospheres continues to be Istanbul, Athens and Glasgow. Paris is just an eclectic kind of raucous, down to the detail of the pre-game music. Was that really the People of the Town? The occasion was generously sprinkled with stardust, glamorous clashes, and none were greater than Messi against Guardiola, the student and teacher of Barcelona’s old days. There was never any doubt that Messi would return directly to the PSG lineup after two games with knee problems.
There was a buzz every time Messi got on the ball, as he did in preparation for the breakthrough goal, though the energy for the play was provided by the ever-dangerous Mbappé. After having played a give and take with Messi, Mbappé threw the ball to Achraf Hakimi and launched himself towards the end line, recovering it and without any City defender following him.
Mbappé cut low for Neymar, who puffed up the shot but, when Kyle Walker couldn’t clear, Gueye intervened, kicking the ball off his feet and crashing an unstoppable drive into the far upper corner.
The city replied. Confidence in possession was not limited to those in dark shirts and Jack Grealish was prominently involved from the left. He didn’t care when it didn’t work out; he kept coming back for more, running to Hakimi, taunting him. City were also quick to change the game to Riyad Mahrez.
It remains a mystery how City did not draw in the 27th minute after Kevin De Bruyne knocked Raheem Sterling out in the middle with the outside of his boot. It was a sumptuous cross and Sterling had to score just to head off the crossbar. So Bernardo Silva really had to score, and yet at point-blank range and with an open-mouthed goal, he somehow lifted the ball up and against the crossbar. Presnel Kimpembe cleared.
City had more than enough of the first half to have been level at the end of it. João Cancelo and Rúben Dias expanded Gianluigi Donnarumma and there were other moments of nervousness for PSG. It felt like the City could throw men after them.
The threat of PSG came to be measured against him but that is where Mbappé comes in. He ripped from behind in the 38th minute to hit Ander Herrera only for Ederson to flip. Should City have finished the first half with all 11 players on the field? De Bruyne’s challenge on Gueye in the 39th minute didn’t seem malicious as he reached out to play the ball but ended up driving his cleats into his opponent’s calf. He was not looking good in the repetitions but the VAR was happy with the yellow card that he was given at the time.
It was only the third time that Messi, Mbappé and Neymar started together and the attention was inevitably directed towards them. And even further back, Marco Verratti showed why he should be regarded as one of the most complete central midfielders in the game. He won the ball and moved it smoothly, although it was all underpinned by his ability to read the play.
Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation offered the chance for De Bruyne to move to the 10th position and he ran to a deft pass from Mahrez in the 55th minute, the tight angle to the right but the chance to shoot. Once again, Donnarumma made the save.
Neymar had moved closer after pulling away from Walker, but it was City who pressed with their front foot. Guardiola sent Phil Foden for Grealish, who had crashed into a wall in the second half. Messi enters.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism