It had to be him. The occasion had called for it. The crowd had come to see it and they had spent most of this box office Champions League tie willing it to happen. And then it did.
When Lionel Messi picked up possession and scuttled in from the right wing, he swapped passes with Kylian Mbappé and, in what felt like the blink of an eye, Manchester City were carved open. It really was the most perfectly weighted of flicks from Mbappé and the chance was on.
Paris Saint-Germain were 1-0 up, despite City having had the better of the previous 73 minutes. Could the maestro pick out the top corner from the edge of the area to secure the win? It was a silly question, not least for Pep Guardiola, who has seen this movie before – over and over again. Of course Messi could. It seemed to happen in slow motion, a swing of the left boot and the ball flying unerringly beyond Ederson before the explosion from the home support, the outpouring of joy and love.
It feels as though they still cannot believe Messi is a PSG player. But this was the night when he announced himself as one. After three largely underwhelming appearances for his new club and a niggling knee injury, he chose his first Champions League tie at a raucous Parc des Princes to come alive.
Guardiola won it all with Messi during four glorious seasons at Barcelona – 14 trophies, including two Champions Leagues – but it is also true that since the manager’s departure from Catalonia, no player has scored more goals against his teams. It is now seven in five games. City had tried to sign Messi in the summer of last year and, if the timing of his departure from Barcelona had been different over this past one, they might have tried again.
Guardiola’s shoulders sagged as the delirious PSG fans whipped out their camera-phones to capture the goal for posterity, to prove that they were there. They chanted Messi’s name, the way the Barcelona supporters used to do, which felt a little incongruous, and City were left to reflect on the cruelty of it all.
They had conceded early to an Idrissa Gueye rocket, also perfectly placed inside the angle of post and crossbar, only to recover and ask plenty of questions. City were the better team in the first half, when Bernardo Silva advanced a contender for miss of the season, and they remained on the front foot in the second period until Messi’s goal, even if clear chances became more scarce.
Mauricio Pochettino, the PSG manager, had reason to be thankful to another of the club’s new signings – the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, who made a string of fine saves – and a crucial sequence for City had taken a turn that they wanted to avoid. They had started it superbly on Saturday with the win at Chelsea. Now they must shake their heads clear before the visit to Liverpool on Sunday.
There was a buzz whenever Messi got on the ball, as he did in the buildup to the breakthrough goal, although the energy for the move was provided by the ever-dangerous Mbappé. Having played a give-and-go with Messi, Mbappé popped the ball off to Achraf Hakimi and darted for the byline, getting it back unattended before crossing for Neymar, who scuffed his shot. Gueye, though, nipped in ahead of Kyle Walker, took a touch and rasped past Ederson.
Silva will still not be able to explain how he did not equalise on 27 minutes. The excellent Kevin De Bruyne picked out Raheem Sterling in the middle with the outside of his boot – a sumptuous cross – and Sterling had to score only to head against the crossbar. Then Silva really had to score on the rebound and yet, from point‑blank range and with an open goal gaping, he hit the crossbar. Presnel Kimpembe cleared.
City had more than enough of the play to be level at half-time. They were confident on the ball, advancing through Jack Grealish on the left or making quick switches to Riyah Mahrez on the other flank. They looked capable of springing men in behind a PSG backline that endured nervous moments. João Cancelo and Rúben Dias extended Donnarumma. PSG’s threat came to be measured on the counter but that is where Mbappé thrives. He blasted around the back on 38 minutes to tee up Ander Herrera only for Ederson to tip over.
Should City have finished the first half with 11 players on the pitch? De Bruyne stretched in on Gueye in the 39th minute, looking to play the ball, but he ended up planting his studs into his opponent’s calf. It did not look good on the replays but the VAR was happy with the yellow card that was given in the moment.
De Bruyne worked Donnarumma again on 55 minutes and it was City who continued to push. Neymar almost got in after sprinting away from Walker but then you-know-who did. Donnarumma would save from Mahrez late on. For City, there was only frustration.
This high profile clash resulted in psg win over man city.