- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
They queued up outside The Lowry for hours before this game for a sight of Lionel Messi. Five miles away from the Etihad Stadium, supporters stood behind barriers waiting for the little genius.
Paris Saint-Germain are more like rockstars than footballers. Their entourages filtered in and out of the five-star hotel as the French club prepared for this Champions League game. But the superstar above them all is Messi. The reaction to his name being read out pointed to where he ranks among his fellow Galactico team-mates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
When Pele, Eusebio or Diego Maradona came to England, spectators only saw the glimpses of what made them great. On a cold December evening in Manchester, they did not want to miss seeing Messi. At the final whistle, one Messi fan broke free of security and begged for his idol’s shirt.
Messi was quiet for much of the game but a few moments of quality, including setting up Kylian Mbappe’s goal, were reminders of his class.
To watch him in the warm-up, you could be forgiven for wondering if his heart was still in it after leaving his beloved Barcelona in the summer, forced out after agreeing a contract but financial regulations preventing him signing it.
His socks were around his ankles as he languidly knocked the ball around. PSG set up players for an intense “rondo” drill of keep-ball but Messi never veered far from a 10-yard space in the confined box.
Just when the warm-up told you Messi was having a night off, he smacked the crossbar with a shot from 30 yards. This was also the pattern of Messi when the match started. For much of the time he was at walking pace, happy to watch others dash around and press the ball. In the end, though, the ball always comes back in his direction and then comes the explosion.
Messi circa 2021 is a poker player who knows what to leave. When battles are not worth fighting, he turns around and gives the ball back to his full-back.
But when he saw his chance to strike, he burst into life and set up PSG’s opening goal of the match. After starting the move in his own half, he was at full speed when he dummied the ball to make room in Manchester City’s defence. Passes were exchanged with Ander Herrera and his low cross invited Mbappe to finish.
With no Harry Kane to replace Sergio Aguero, Messi would have been the perfect No 9 for Pep Guardiola. They would sacrifice an attacker who pressed the ball, but Messi’s class is worth a goal a game - as Cristiano Ronaldo has shown at Manchester United.
Guardiola was asked repeatedly about playing without a striker in the build-up to this match. Messi would have provided the answers. It was also put to him by a journalist that he is impossible to stop even when it is known what is coming.
And so it proved. At 34, those fans at The Lowry know these matches could be the last few occasions that we see Messi in England.