There aren’t so many occasions these days when Lionel Messi, as used to be his way, makes it difficult to believe there can ever be enough superlatives in existence to cover what he does on a football pitch.
As much as we might not want to admit it, he no longer tortures opponents in a way that makes you suspect he must belong to a different orbit. You can watch him now without the thought occurring that maybe he is just temporarily on this planet.Still, though, he is capable of moments that make you wonder how much fun it would have been if all that eye contact with Manchester City last year had led to him coming to play in the Premier League.
One of those moments came in City’s 2-1 defeat of his Paris Saint-Germain side at the Etihad Stadium last night when the six-time Ballon d’Or winner stopped dawdling — and, boy, he really does like a stroll these days — to remind his audience about the precious magic in his feet.
As Messi received the ball in midfield, there were two City players in close proximity and the nearest, Oleksandr Zinchenko, was quick to challenge him. Not quick enough, though. Messi wriggled clear. Raheem Sterling was next and an instinctive cheer went up as Messi, being Messi, slipped the ball through his legs.
There is nothing more patronising for a footballer at this level than succumbing to a nutmeg and, briefly, the mind went back to the time James Milner made the mistake — silly boy — of diving into a challenge on Messi during a City visit to Barcelona’s Nou Camp in 2015.Remember that one? The nutmeg from Messi left Milner on his backside and, high in the stands, then-Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola was watching as a fan. He had his head in his hands, shaking with laughter at the impudence of his former player.
These days, at age 34, Messi tends to spend even more of his time walking through games. It has always been part of his routine, but more now than ever.
There were only sporadic flashes of his brilliance during City’s latest Champions League assignment and even fewer occasions when colleague Neymar seemed too bothered about affirming his own status as one of the sport’s genuine A-listers.
Their PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe may have scored the opening goal but the overall impression was that he had absolutely no intention of doing all the running on their behalf.Mauricio Pochettino is too streetwise to say it, perhaps, but there must be times when the man who inspired so much hard graft from Tottenham Hotspur’s players wishes his PSG front three looked as dynamic on grass as they do on paper.
The good still outweighs the bad, of course, when each of these players is capable of troubling even the most accomplished defences.
Yet it contrasts with the approach that Guardiola has invoked at City, whereby the first rule is to run harder than your opponents and the club have never seemed too obsessed, apart from the early stages of the Abu Dhabi era more than a decade ago, about collecting superstars in the way Real Madrid once did with their Galacticos and PSG do now.Maybe it would have been different if Cristiano Ronaldo had accepted City’s invitation to join them in the summer rather than using it as a bargaining tool to negotiate his reunion with Manchester United.
At other times, City have given serious consideration to signing Messi and reuniting Guardiola with the player who helped him make Barcelona possibly the most beautifully constructed club side we have ever seen.
Is there any regret on Guardiola’s part — or that of the multiple former Barcelona executives who are now in charge at City — that it never happened?It does not seem that way. And, besides, the champions of England are not doing too badly bearing in mind they were missing Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish for this 2-1 defeat of PSG, and might have won with a lot more to spare had it not been for some superb goalkeeping and last-ditch defending, Ilkay Gundogan’s shot thudding off the post, and various other moments of misfortune.
The beauty of this City side, in short, is that it is a collective.
They play with a spirit of togetherness. They pass the ball as exquisitely in defence as they do further up the pitch. They collect trophies without having the egos of some teams. They can never be accused of a lack of effort and, in the process, they adhere to some of the core principles that Pochettino had with Spurs but not, it seems, PSG — out-pass your opponents. Outwork them, too. Treat giving the ball away as a sin. And if that does happen, win it back as quickly as possible.