The strangest sight of Lionel Messi was one of the last. The Argentinian has been many things during the most glorious of careers but rarely the draft excluder. But he was reinvented in injury time, lying on the ground, facing his own goal as Riyad Mahrez lined up a free kick. Thankfully for Messi, it did not skim the turf.
The more familiar image was of Messi ghosting through, caressing the ball with his left foot, sending it into the top corner of the Manchester City goal. The incongruous element was that Kylian Mbappe supplied the deft lay-off, that the shirt on his back was Paris Saint-Germain’s.
It was Messi’s first goal for his new club but the sort Pep Guardiola recognised all too well; there were certain similarities with many of the double century Messi scored for him at Barcelona. “We know it’s impossible to control Leo during 90 minutes,” his former manager said. “When he can run and get close to the ball he is unstoppable.”
Part of City’s gameplan, Guardiola said, had been to “minimise” the number of times Messi was in such situations. In a sense, it succeeded. Messi had a solitary shot, but it was a sublime one.
Messi had missed PSG’s previous two games with a minor knee injury. His stop-start career in France had only included 190 minutes. “He needed a bit of rhythm,” Guardiola said. Even without being in peak physical condition, Messi showed he can be deadly. “With time, he will improve a lot,” said Mauricio Pochettino, looking forward to what a sharper Messi could accomplish. Defences should beware.
And yet this was a tale of two goalscorers, one understandably overshadowed by the other. Idrissa Gueye nevertheless has twice as many goals for PSG this season as Messi and Neymar do between them. Indeed, there is something decidedly odd that their joint top scorers this season are Kylian Mbappe, Ander Herrera and Gueye.
But victory was forged by the toil of workhorses. They have been improbably prolific this season but while Guardiola hailed PSG’s regista Marco Verratti – “I love this player,” he said – the graft of his less classy sidekicks was more important.
Guardiola reflected on the difficulties of breaking down Pochettino’s team. “They defended deep with seven players,” he said. Indeed, there was one picture of seven outfield players, all camped in their penalty box, while the other three – the star-studded forward line – were far out of sight. Yet the famously indefatigable Gueye had got forward to score from eight yards. A redoubtable defensive midfielder doubled up as an attacking one.
PSG’s inability to win the Champions League, and some of their chastening exits, can be attributed to the sense that they were a star vehicle more than a team; with deluxe attackers spared defensive duties, they looked the antithesis to Pochettino’s Tottenham or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
PSG v Manchester City player ratings
When City won in the Parc des Princes in last season’s semi-finals, they ran four kilometres further than PSG. In the rematch at the Etihad Stadium, the difference between them was five kilometres. On Tuesday, Pochettino’s team ran 1.7 kilometres further than the visitors.
The temptation is to attribute that all to Gueye and Herrera, bursting forward to support the front three, tracking back to protect Verratti, going out to either flank to shield their full-backs. As each is 32, it feels a question of how long each can keep on running. That they have the 2019 Champions League winner Georginio Wijnaldum as an alternative, however, means PSG may have the strength in depth they sometimes lacked in the past.
For City, a first group-stage defeat in three years was a sign in part that they have rarely faced opposition of this calibre so early. “We go home upset because we like only one thing and that is to win,” said Ruben Dias, who captained them. “We are disappointed because we demand everything from ourselves. It was always a 50-50 game and we had our chances.”
In particular, they could look back on the moment when Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva hit the bar in swift succession. Each was an easier opportunity than the one Messi later took. But then, as Guardiola has long said, it can be unfair to compare others to Messi.