PSG must find way of weaving talents of Messi, Neymar and Co into balanced team

Argentine finally made his debut on Sunday but challenge facing manager Pochettino will be keeping star turns happy and winning games against elite opposition

After the final whistle, Predrag Rajkovic wanted a souvenir. So did about 20,000 others, but the Stade Reims goalkeeper had priority access and he wasn’t ready to let his moment slip. He summoned his young son from the grandstand, handed the child to Lionel Messi and took a photo whose historic significance Rajkovic junior will, when he’s older, learn to appreciate.

It was one of many lasting images from a night when Messi did something few imagined possible. Not a breathtaking run, nor an improbably angled finish, but a senior club match in the colours of a team other than Barcelona, where he spent 21 years until the sudden, heart-wrenching break of that relationship earlier this month.

Reims was the venue for Messi’s debut for Paris Saint-Germain, Rajkovic ready with his camera. The superstar had come on with 25 minutes left, PSG already 2-0 ahead, and if it seemed eerie to see him wearing a jersey that was not Barca’s or Argentina’s, Messi showed he is still Messi. There was a darting run, his passes were neat and measured. He opened up a half-chance for Kylian Mbappe, who had already scored both the night’s goals.

And Messi, in his 25 minutes, alarmed Reims enough that their Zimbabwean midfielder, Marshall Munetsi dragged Messi back with a strong tug on his shoulder. As Messi tumbled, he seemed to hurt the side of his face. The crowd in the Auguste-Delaune stadium briefly held their breath. After a quick rub, Messi was fine, happy enough to soon be smiling patiently for photographs with the offspring of the opposition goalkeeper.

Not every rival will be as awestruck as the Rajkovic family during Messi’s time in France, where he is under contract with PSG for two years with an option for a third that would take him past his 37th birthday. But the thrill that probably the finest footballer of the century has arrived in Ligue 1 was palpable in Reims and it will be repeated elsewhere.

The 21,000 stadium was packed out. “It was great to see and listen to the reception for Messi,” said the PSG manager, Mauricio Pochettino, “and not just from our fans but from the Reims supporters. He was happy about it.”

Pochettino was anxious not to be thought a spoilsport for having left Messi, who had only been training with his new club for two weeks, out of the starting XI. “It was common sense not to start him yet. But when he came on he showed how well integrated he is. He made us all calm.”

Perhaps not Neymar, who looked miffed to be the player Pochettino brought off for Messi, although the Brazilian and the Argentinian, who are good friends, embraced warmly at the moment of the substitution. And if anybody made PSG calm on Sunday it was Mbappe, whose goals soothed Pochettino at points in the match when Reims were threatening to impose an awkward scoreline on a night designed to show off PSG’s abundance of talent.

Mbappe was superb, evidently enjoyed his 25 minutes being a teammate with Messi, and then set off for international duty with France ready for a noisy last two days of the transfer window. PSG have received a vast offer - €180 million ($212m) - from Real Madrid for Mbappe, whose contract with the Parisiens expires in June. He has made it plain he wants to play for Madrid one day, be it joining them for free, as he could next year, or for a sizeable fee.

Mbappe’s bond with PSG may be a fragile one. Messi’s is ready to be built. Pochettino now has to engineer the best way of combining Messi, Neymar, Angel di Maria, Marco Verratti and Georginio Wijnaldum while giving PSG the balance and stamina to keep control of matches far harder than an away trip to plucky Reims.

Goalkeeper Rajkovic, meanwhile, can look forward to his next photo opportunity. He is in Serbia’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, and if he keeps his place for the November fixtures, he has a date in Lisbon against Portugal. He may want to take his son and his camera for when Cristiano Ronaldo shakes hands with everybody after the game.

By then, the Messi v Ronaldo duel will be well into its next chapter - the race to see which of these two greats makes the better start at the clubs, PSG and Manchester United, they have joined during this extraordinary summer.

Updated: August 31st 2021, 5:33 AM
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