Pep Guardiola has been known to call Lionel Messi the finest footballer ever and the best he has seen. As he prepared for a reunion, he was less effusive about his protege. Guardiola’s words were that Messi’s football has done the talking over the course of an extraordinary footballing life.
“We were fortunate to see him during these 16 years,” Guardiola said. “Messi speaks for himself. We don’t have to describe him. What he has done in his career is more than exceptional.”
Those achievements include six Ballons d’Or, four Champions Leagues and 10 La Liga titles while scoring 672 goals for Barcelona. There is the chance that a first for Paris Saint-Germain will come at the expense of a mentor: Messi has missed PSG’s last two matches with a minor knee injury but is back in training and Guardiola said: “Hopefully he can play for the benefit of the game.”
It is nine years since they parted company but they remain indelibly associated. Each facilitated the other’s rise to greatness. Guardiola took over at Barcelona in 2008 and exiled Ronaldinho to build a team around the Argentinian. In four seasons, they won the Champions League twice and he scored 211 goals.
Guardiola had long said he thought Messi would finish his career at Camp Nou. There may be something incongruous in the sight of him in a PSG shirt on Tuesday. “For a long time, you could not imagine it,” the City manager said. “It was a little bit of a surprise for everyone but what happened, happened and now everyone has accepted it.”
Messi completes a star-studded front three in the French capital, linking up again with Neymar and joining Kylian Mbappe. Guardiola believes the two best sides he has faced as a manager are Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Luis Enrique’s Barcelona, when Messi was accompanied in attack by Luis Suarez and Neymar. “Both teams had exceptional players and good organisation,” Guardiola said.
If part of the challenge for PSG is to forge a similarly formidable unit and produce a team more than the sum of its remarkable parts, Guardiola said: “They are exceptional players. All of them are so good individually and they can combine and connect with each other. With this amount of quality I don’t know what we should do to stop them, to control this amount of talent is so difficult.”
Yet City only conceded once in 180 minutes of last season’s semi-final against PSG, albeit minus Messi, and head to France on the back of five consecutive Premier League clean sheets.
They prevented the Champions League winners Chelsea from recording a shot on target in their victory on Saturday and Guardiola argued: “The most important thing is how many chances we concede. We have to be compact, help each other and know we are going to suffer and have pain. Everyone puts their heart and spirit in for each other. That’s why we can defend well.”
An ability to “suffer for 90 minutes”, in Guardiola’s words, has underpinned City’s best results in the last year. He admitted that PSG were the better side in the opening period of the semi-final in Paris.
Resilience helped them stay in the game before Kevin de Bruyne inspired a second-half comeback. City will be without another talismanic midfielder for the rematch, with Ilkay Gundogan missing plus Sunday’s trip to Liverpool. But if their players lack Messi’s profile, they know they have match-winners. Riyad Mahrez, who was born in Paris, scored three semi-final goals against PSG. He reflected: “A good day for the team first and me as well.”