It had to be him. The occasion had called him. The crowd had come to see him and spent most of that Champions League game at the box office wanting it to happen. And then it’s done.
When Lionel Messi took possession of the ball and rushed from the right at a steady pace, exchanging passes with Kylian Mbappé, Manchester City had been separated. The luck was there. Paris Saint-Germain led 1-0, although City had the best of the previous 73 minutes. Now, could the maestro pick the top corner of the edge of the box 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 be happening in slow motion, a left kick and the ball infallibly flying past Ederson before home support exploded.
Phones came out as PSG fans captured the moment I was there on camera. Guardiola’s shoulders slumped. No player has scored more goals against his teams than Messi, his former Barcelona protégé. He is now seven in five games. It was Messi’s arc in the Champions League at Parc des Princes and how he delivered.
It was cruel to City, who had conceded an Idrissa Gueye rocket early and had asked plenty of questions afterwards. PSG had reason to thank another new signing, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, for a series of saves. Ultimately, however, the tie would be defined by Messi’s magical moment.
City’s goal had been to manage the occasion, to try to impose their quality as they had done during their previous visit to this stadium. It was in the first leg of last season’s semi-final when they won 2-1 to take a big step towards the final.
A big difference. The Park was empty at the time. Now it was pulsing with noise and color. The benchmark for the intensity of European footballing atmospheres remains Istanbul, Athens and Glasgow. Paris is quite simply an eclectic kind of fuss, right down to the details of the pre-match music. Was it really the Village People? The occasion was liberally dusted with stardust, with glamorous matches and none was bigger than Messi against former Barcelona student and teacher Guardiola. There was no doubt that Messi was returning straight to PSG roster after two away games with knee issues.
There was a buzz every time Messi stepped on the ball, as he did during the prep for the deciding goal, although the energy for the movement was provided by the always dangerous Mbappé. After playing a back and forth with Messi, Mbappé blew the ball to Achraf Hakimi and rushed to the signing, picking him up and without any City defender following him.
Mbappé cut low for Neymar, who took the shot but, when Kyle Walker couldn’t clear, Gueye pinched, removing the ball from his feet and crushing an unstoppable practice in the far top corner.
The City responded. Confidence in possession wasn’t limited to those wearing dark shirts and Jack Grealish was heavily involved on the left. He didn’t care when it didn’t come off for him; he was always back for more, running over to Hakimi, teasing him. City also quickly transferred the game to Riyad Mahrez.
It remains a mystery as to how City failed to equalize in the 27th minute after Kevin De Bruyne picked Raheem Sterling in the middle with the outside of his boot. It was a sumptuous cross and Sterling only had to score to head against the crossbar. Then Bernardo Silva really had to score and yet, at close range and with a gaping open goal, he sort of lifted the ball against the crossbar. Presnel Kimpembe cleared.
City had more than enough of the first half to be tied at the end. João Cancelo and Rúben Dias extended Gianluigi Donnarumma and there were other nervous moments for PSG. It was as if City could make men leap behind them.
The threat of PSG has been measured against the clock, but this is where Mbappé comes in. He exploded in the back in the 38th minute to hit Ander Herrera before Ederson fell over. Should City have finished the first half with the 11 players on the pitch? De Bruyne’s challenge on Gueye in the 39th minute didn’t look bad as he stretched to play the ball but ended up sticking his crampons into his opponent’s calf. It didn’t look good on reruns but VAR was happy with the yellow card that was given at the time.
This was only the third time Messi, Mbappé and Neymar started together and attention was inevitably drawn to them. And even further, Marco Verratti showed why he must be considered one of the most complete central midfielders in the game. He won the ball and he moved it smoothly, even though it was all underlined. by his ability to read the game.
Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation gave De Bruyne the opportunity to drift to the No.10 position and he ran on a smart Mahrez pass in the 55th minute, the angle tight to the right but the chance to shoot . Once again, Donnarumma made the stop.
Neymar had approached after sprinting away from Walker, but it was City who stepped on the front foot. Guardiola sent Phil Foden for Grealish, who hit a wall in the second half. Enter Messi.