It should be the night of the grand premiere, and the beginning of a long discussion about whether or not Paris Saint-Germain have assembled the most effective attacking trio in football, perhaps even the most dynamic striking trident in the game this century.
In Bruges, where the home team may fear their role is that of experimental punchbag, it is expected that Lionel Messi makes his first start for PSG. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are also available to line up with him from kick-off.
Messi has played just half an hour so far for the club he joined in the summer from Barcelona, where, until late July, he had anticipated seeing out his peak career. The 34-year-old came on as a substitute at Stade Reims just over two weeks ago, to great fanfare, but as if to tantalise a worldwide audience pent up with anticipation about how Neymar, Mbappe and Messi might function together, the Brazilian member of the dream attack was substituted for Messi at Reims, where victory was assured above all by a brilliant Mbappe.
There had been further suspense, too, about Mbappe’s longer commitment to being part of the so-called ‘MNM’ striking trio. He was subject of a mammoth, €180 million ($212.6m) bid from Real Madrid in August. The 22-year-old Frenchman wants to play for Madrid at some stage in a career that has many years ahead of it, and will be out of contract next June.
PSG still turned the offer down. Mbappe remains part of their plans, at least for another nine months, pending a possible future where he may or may not become the capital ‘M’ in VBM, or MBV, or BVM, or whatever a Madrid forward line combining Karim Benzema, Vinicius and Mbappe might be labelled.
Perhaps the grand plan of ambitious PSG demanded that Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe share a pitch as teammates for the first time not in France’s Ligue 1 but in the Champions League. It is the competition that has been prioritised since Qatari investors took over the club a decade ago.
PSG have never won a European Cup, and the pursuit of it, even with Neymar and Mbappe operating as the most expensive tandem in history – a combined €400m was committed on their transfer fees in 2017 – has been wrought with frustrations. There was a losing final, against Bayern Munich, in 2020. There were defeats in both legs of the semi-final against Manchester City last May.
Pressure builds up with each of these near-misses. And PSG have frequently lost their bearings when the stakes rise. Much as the eye will be drawn to whether MBM has its premiere against Club Bruges on Wednesday night, and to how head coach Mauricio Pochettino chooses, tactically, to combine the trio, the fact is that, in other positions, Pochettino cannot chose from a full-strength squad because of the undisciplined way in which key players reacted to the collapse of their European dream last season.
Pochettino’s midfield enforcer, Idrissa Gana Gueye, will serve the second game of a two-match ban following his red card for a dreadful challenge on Ilkay Gundogan in the first leg of the semi against City. That night, PSG unravelled, losing 2-1 having taken an early lead in the tie.
Worse would be Angel Di Maria’s stamp at Fernandinho in the second leg, when City won 2-0. Di Maria was sent off and now begins a three-match Uefa suspension.
That rules the Argentinian, a key supplier of passes to Mbappe, Neymar, and, as an international teammate, to Messi, not only against Bruges but in the next two fixtures In a Group A that cannot be considered a formality - it includes the last two runners up in the Champions League plus the 2020 semi-finalists, RB Leipzig - that is a setback. PSG will be without Di Maria for the home games against City and Leipzig.
This evening, Pochettino will also be without Marco Verratti and new signing Sergio Ramos, both recovering from injury.
That should be no great burden against Bruges, leaders of the Belgian league, whose bad luck is to have been drawn into a ferocious group. Their privilege is to the chosen witnesses of Messi’s likely first start as a PSG player, one who, according Pochettino, is impatient to take aim at a fifth Champions League title of his career.
“Since he’s arrived in Paris, he’s adapted fast, trained well and is striving to get to his highest level as soon as possible,” said the PSG head coach.