Lionel Messi back on familiar turf hoping to inflict more damage on Real Madrid

First return to an old hunting ground as a PSG star as Madrid continue to woo his teammate Kylian Mbappe

Lionel Messi and Neymar will be key players in the second leg of PSG's Champions League showdown with Real Madrid in Spain on Wednesday night. EPA
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As afternoon turned to evening in the capital of Spain on Tuesday, Lionel Messi disembarked the Paris Saint-Germain team bus for practice at a stadium he knows like the back of his hand. But he noted how Real Madrid’s Bernabeu has changed since the last time he was in action there, two years ago.

Some of the sleek upgrades in an extensive remodelling of the famous venue are already visible. Others are work in progress, and with capacity still restricted to 60,000, Messi may tonight detect a different atmosphere to what he became used to over 15 years journeying at least once a season to raucous fixtures at Real Madrid in the jersey of their main rivals, Barcelona.

He inflicted a great deal of damage on Madrid over the course of those trips, although his impact tailed off in Barca’s recent years of decline. Messi scored the last of 15 goals at the Bernabeu in 2017. His first game there for PSG, who he joined last August, would be a fine time to break a four-match drought at the home of Real Madrid.

At stake is a place in the last eight of the Champions League. With a 1-0 lead from the opening leg in Paris three weeks ago, PSG carry a narrow advantage into the Bernabeu. Messi more than anybody knows it ought to be more on the balance of a first leg where PSG set the tempo. He had a penalty saved before Kylian Mbappe struck the evening’s only, late goal.

Neymar is back from the ankle problem that restricted him to a substitutes’ role in the first leg, and eager to reacquaint himself with a Bernabeu he also knows intimately. Not only from his four years as a Barcelona player, but from childhood. In 2006, the Brazilian was in Madrid as a boy, completing forms to register at Real’s academy. The arrangement fell through. In 2011, when he was 18, Madrid thought they had all but signed him. Then Barcelona stole in, ahead of PSG breaking the transfer record with their €222m capture of Neymar four years later.

As for the third, and youngest member of PSG’s glittering forward line, he has Madrid in his past, and, Real like to think, in his future. Mbappe, who is expected to overcome some bruising to his left foot sustained in practice on Monday, has often told how he spent much of his childhood dreaming about playing in Madrid’s all-white strip. He visited the club as a 12-year-old a decade ago, greeted by Zinedine Zidane, his idol. He had his photograph taken with Cristiano Ronaldo.

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From that point on, Mbappe has been on Real Madrid’s future agenda, and since he burst through as the most exciting young attacking player in Europe in his later teens, the club have plotted ways to lure him from France. Madrid offered PSG €200m for him last summer. PSG turned it down, even though Mbappe’s contract with them only had a year left to run.

Madrid believe Mbappe will let that contract expire in June and he will join them. PSG are pushing vigorously for him to renew. The duel over the France striker will return to the top of both clubs’ agenda as soon as this evening’s joust is over.

It intruded in yesterday’s preambles. Luka Modric, Madrid’s senior player, was assigned press conference duties and, anticipating questions about Mbappe’s future, had prepared a welcoming message to the player.

“Of course I would love to play alongside him,” said Modric. “You always want to play with the great footballers and he is one. It’s hard to talk about players who aren’t here because it can make other clubs angry. But, obviously we’d like to have him with us.”

Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid coach, was asked whether he would be surprised if the home supporters at the Bernabeu, well aware that their club have been in extensive contact with Mbappe about his future, gave Mbappe a special ovation?

“If you look at the history of the Bernabeu, great players have always been applauded here,” said Ancelotti, “so I would understand it.”

Most important for Ancelotti is how to tame Mbappe for a night. “Our plan must deal with all of them, Messi and Neymar too,” said the Italian, a former PSG coach. “It means playing with intensity and intelligence.”

Madrid will be without the suspended pair Casemiro, a key miss from midfield, and left back Ferland Mendy, while midfielder Toni Kroos’s recovery from a hamstring problem will be assessed this morning.

“If Kroos is 100 per cent fit, he’ll play. If it’s 95 per cent, he won’t,” said Ancelotti.

Updated: March 08, 2022, 4:21 PM
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