Messi’s arrival will make Champions League a necessity for Pochettino

This deal could be pivotal for both PSG’s ambitions and French football’s future

Lionel Messi’s ability to settle in France, away from his “home” at Barcelona, will be an interesting subplot. Photograph: Getty Images

Lionel Messi’s ability to settle in France, away from his “home” at Barcelona, will be an interesting subplot. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Superman had a decision to make: stop one nuke or the other. Having diverted the missile Lex Luther had fired at New York, he was not able to stop the other missile, which exploded in California and led to earthquakes and the death of Lois Lane.

It would have made for an unfulfilling ending to the 1978 film Superman, so in a preposterous plot twist, he whizzes around the planet a few times, rewinds time (obviously) and saves Lane. Problem – inexplicably – solved. PSG have problems of their own, but their own superhero may be on his way to provide a deus ex machina.

Amid biblical levels of transfer drama, Lionel Messi is set to fly to Paris on Monday for his PSG medical. The group of expectant PSG fans who gathered at Le Bourget Airport in Paris yesterday afternoon were forced to wait, but the deal between player and club is apparently agreed.

The mood in France is one of wide-eyed disbelief. Brest coach Michel Der Zakarian let the excitement get the better of him, saying: “We say that we have a shit league, but if we manage to bring in a player like that, it would be exceptional. I’m not going to be polite here – but he gives me a hard-on”.

Although PSG’s owners would be similarly overjoyed at Messi’s arrival for off-field reasons, with the World Cup in Qatar just 14 months away, from a sporting perspective Messi’s signing is designed to do one thing: secure the Champions League for PSG.

Messi has been nearly as desperate as his prospective new employers to capture what he referred to as “that beautiful and desired cup” when addressing Camp Nou in 2019. Last summer he explained that his keenness to leave Barcelona was partly due to their lack of competitiveness in Europe. “I want to compete at the highest level, win titles and compete in the Champions League,” Messi said.

Dropping probably the greatest player ever into PSG’s team may prove something of a footballing deus ex machina. Like at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino’s incarnation of PSG have so far struggled to create openings against deep-sitting, defensive sides. Losses to struggling Nantes and Lorient last season were two of eight defeats in the manager’s first 35 PSG matches, the worst ratio for a QSI-era coach, as Lille won the title.

PSG also struggled for creativity against an intense and ruthless Manchester City in the Champions League semi-final, despite impressive counter-attacking wins over Barcelona and Bayern Munich in earlier rounds. Messi’s unexpected and unlikely arrival should, in theory, counter both of Pochettino’s main problems.

Messi’s signing, although ultimately focused on succeeding in Europe, could inadvertently save Ligue 1 in the process too. Financial issues have weakened the league more than most over the last 18 months. The 2019-20 season was stopped early; the league’s mammoth television deal collapsed; clubs had to go without matchday receipts; and sponsorship has decreased.

The attention that will come from having the world’s greatest player could restore much of Ligue 1’s commercial impetus. Unfortunately for the LFP, however, the wrangling over a revised broadcast deal was sorted just last week.

It is up to Pochettino to work out how to balance a team with Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Ángel Di María, but he will likely choose his side based on their opponents. PSG’s supposed pursuit of Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly – who would compete with captain Marquinhos, Sergio Ramos and Presnel Kimpembe at centre-back – suggests a three-man defence is planned for encounters against comparable forces.

As a result, the overlooked and underrated Di María, admittedly now 33, should see his Champions League gametime diminish. However, it is very likely that all four forwards will line up in a gung-ho 4-2-4 at promoted Clermont’s tiny Stade Gabriel Montpied with its 12,000 capacity and grass banks in each corner.

The players have the ability to interchange and, unlike in Antoine Griezmann’s ill-fitting move to Camp Nou, there are clear nominal positions for all three key men (Neymar left, Messi right, Mbappé centre), which should make things relatively simple for Pochettino should Messi sign.

His ability to settle in France, away from his “home” at Barcelona, will be an interesting subplot. For two summers in a row, Messi has not got what he wanted. Having been forced to stay after angrily seeking a move away from Barcelona last summer, he is now forced to leave the club due to financial issues when he says he wanted to stay. Messi’s tearful departure from, and inextricable link to, Barcelona could make for a potentially tricky transition.

PSG’s close, sometimes overbearing, contingent of Spanish speakers – they could name an entire team of hispanophones this season – will be central to that process, as will Neymar’s presence. Somewhat debunking the notion that Neymar joined PSG to create his own private fiefdom away from Messi, the Brazilian has been persistent in his attempts to persuade his former teammate to follow him.

A warm welcome is guaranteed, which would not always have been the case at PSG – even for Messi. Former PSG clique leader Zlatan Ibrahimovic certainly would not have offered up his No 10 shirt as Neymar has reportedly done. Messi refused, reportedly picking 19, his previous Barcelona number.

Although this 34-year-old superhero may not be able to turn back time, and his presence will make winning the Champions League a necessity for Pochettino, he may yet prove an instant and unlikely solution to some persistent problems.

Messi will help PSG manoeuvre through tight defences in domestic games; he will provide the magic in those narrow ties in the latter stages of the Champions League; and he will bring renewed vigour to Ligue 1’s flagging finances. This deal could be pivotal for PSG and French football. - Guardian

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