In the vast portfolio of Lionel Messi’s career goals, there are not too many you can call atypical.
He has won a Champions League final with a header. He’s scored on the sly with his hand in the days before VAR was better at detecting these things.
But a curled finish from the outside of his boot is a relative rarity. He’ll be delighted to have scored such a collectors’ item of a goal on his 50th appearance for Paris Saint-Germain.
The result that confirmed the French league-leaders’ place in the last 16 of the Champions League grabbed attention too, a 7-2 win over Maccabi Haifa, who in their previous European outing had beaten Juventus.
Messi contributed two goals and assisted twice, the star of a swaggering show from the most celebrated striking trio in club football. Here were Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar combining, sharing and thriving together to present a compelling counter-argument to reports there is tension between two of them, Mbappe and Neymar.
Certainly there are spaces on the field that each of PSG’s Fab Three would all prefer to attack. Pity the defenders charged with marshalling the opposition's inside-left channel at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday. From there, Messi opened the scoring with his Luka Modric-style curler. From a very similar position, Mbappe made it 2-0, arching in a shot from his right instep. Neymar attacked similar territory for PSG’s third goal, his effort ricocheting past goalkeeper Cohen from the inside of a post. After half-time, Mbappe struck their fifth from the same channel.
The gaps there had in each case been carefully worked by the off-the-ball running of one or two of PSG’s forwards, or the quick fire interchanges between various of the so-called ‘MNM’, as Messi-Neymar-Mbappe are known. They are as lethal a weapon as they ever have been. So far this season, they have between them scored 40 of PSG’s 50 goals across competitions; they are also top (Messi, with 12), second (Neymar, with 10) and third (Mbappe, on four) in the rankings for assists.
PSG ratings v Maccabi Haifa
“When you see them express themselves like that, it’s a joy for a coach,” beamed Christophe Galtier, who took charge of PSG in the summer. He had sensed a big night ahead for MNM, having overseen a practice session on Monday that he said “was of an exceptional level”.
Despite Mbappe’s alleged complaints about his starting position in the front three - too central - and his reported disappointment with the club’s failure to bring in a more orthodox centre-forward in the last transfer window, he has carried his supreme form of 2021-22 - the 39-goal campaign that helped him gain a spectacularly lucrative new contract in May - into this season.
Messi has meanwhile raised his game to the standard of his Barcelona years, after what had been a discreet debut season in France following his summer 2021 move from Catalonia. Neymar is on course for the most productive of his seasons at PSG, and of his long period carrying the most expensive transfer fee - the €222m paid to Barcelona for him - his sport has ever known.
But this is no ordinary season. If PSG, whose goal-glut against Maccabi Haifa will help their chances of topping their Champions League group, ahead of Benfica, look in fine shape to deliver a first European Cup for the club, Galtier warns of hazards ahead.
“It’s a very nice thing to be coaching these players, especially those three up front,” he said. “But the pleasure you get as a manager is limited by the many things you have to take care of, like the heavy schedule of matches. You have to beware of injuries and the freshness of the players.”
The first World Cup to be staged within a domestic season, the Qatar showpiece that begins next month, preys on his mind. It galvanises MNM, too. Not least of the reasons that Brazil, France and Argentina are regarded as the top three favourites to win the World Cup is that Brazil’s Neymar, France’s Mbappe and Argentina’s Messi have been in such sparkling club form.
They each anticipate a long World Cup, with all its concentrated demands on body and mind. Galtier will welcome them back from it expecting one of them to be carrying a gold medal, and all of them to be bearing some symptoms of fatigue.