In this position, Lionel Messi first touched the ball, the area that has served as the beginning point for so many of his best moments, the site that he knows so well that it might almost be called his own particular spot in the world. It has served as his base camp and happy place for the greater part of 15 years, and it is located a few yards inside the right touchline and a few yards from halfway.
He was still standing motionless while he exercised control over it. By that point, he’d been standing motionless for quite a bit of time already. After taking an early lead via Idrissa Gueye, Paris St.-Germain was forced to fight for its life against Manchester City’s relentless assaults for the most of the second half.
Because of the tenacity and perseverance of Gueye and Ander Herrera, the tenacity of Marquinhos, the sheer, indomitable size and unbelievable flexibility of Gianluigi Donnarumma, and a bit by chance, it had managed to retain its advantage. The city was repeatedly cut through, only for the P.S.G. to resist the assaults at the last possible minute.
As Manchester City, the Premier League winner, increased the pressure on P.S.G., the front line that serves as the club’s crown jewel seemed to lose interest. At initially, both Neymar and Kylian Mbappé stepped forward to provide a helping hand, faithfully following their runners and steadfastly assisting their fullbacks. So did Messi, who had made a point of harrying and pressuring his opponents in the opening half-hour or so of the game.
As the game went on, though, their attempts grew increasingly irregular as time progressed in its course. The issue has always been how can a club structured around three superstars — three players who, on most teams, would have other players to do the heavy work for them — compete against the well-oiled machines that, for the most part, dominate contemporary soccer, despite their immense talent?
In some ways, City and P.S.G. are mirror reflections of one another. Both have been created nearly entirely from the ground up. Both are propelled by the seemingly limitless riches of the Gulf States. Both organizations represent initiatives that view soccer as a means to an end rather than as a goal in and of itself. Additionally, both have been built as platforms for and memorials to certain people.
The only significant distinctions are that the people at the core of the P.S.G. project run about on the field while City’s staff gives instructions from the sidelines, and that City’s approach is more closely aligned with the demands of the elite game: Pep Guardiola’s system, which he designed himself, is supreme, and his billion-dollar team must bow to it. At P.S.G., the system is considered a secondary consideration to the stars.
As the game progressed on Tuesday, it seemed as if that would be the lesson to be learned. The ball was in the hands of City. P.S.G. was on the prowl for shadows. That is, the majority of the players on the PSG’s roster did. Gueye and Herrera, as well as the indefatigable Marco Verratti, worked tirelessly to shut off areas and put out flames. With each passing minute, Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé ambled about, no longer willing to pursue after them. According to a contemporary soccer principle, the home team’s good fortune could not continue.
The ball was then handed to Messi. The fact that he has to shift through the gears a little more often these days helped him gain some ground on his opponent as he approached City’s penalty area, drifting a little closer to the centre with each step, as if he were being dragged closer to the edge of the penalty area by the gravity of the goal itself.
Messi has always seemed to come to life in this environment. Despite the fact that he was moving at breakneck pace, there was no feeling of urgency in his demeanor; it seemed that he was waiting for all of the other moving elements of the scenario to be exactly right before playing his hand. He saw Achraf Hakimi blasting down the right side of the city, throwing the city’s form off balance. Mbappé rushed across the box at an angle, which he noticed. He sat and waited.
In the end, it was the possibility of watching Messi play with Neymar — for so long his natural successor — and Mbappé, the guy most likely to succeed him as the greatest player in the world, that made the decision to join P.S.G. bearable for many fans.
After all, he was adamant about not wanting to leave Barcelona, and he made it clearly obvious. It was only because of the fatal economics of the contemporary game that he had to abandon his position as the best player of his, or maybe any, age. When it became clear that Barcelona would no longer be able to pay him, he had no option but to join one of two teams in the league.
It has taken some time for the chemistry to develop. Mbappé and Neymar have been known to butt heads from time to time, with one claiming that the other does not share the ball as much as he should be able to. Messi’s start had been sluggish as well, as he was still recovering from a postponed preseason. Even the Harlem Globetrotters, after all, have to put in the time to perfect their moves.