Despite the fact Barcelona will not be present, the Blaugrana will be at the forefront of people’s minds at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday. The defining player and coach in the modern history of the Catalan giants will square off. Lionel Messi will take to the field in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, opposing a Manchester City side coached by Pep Guardiola. Together, the pair enjoyed a scarcely-believable run of trophy-laden excellence. But another Barcelona connection could actually be the key to winning this big Champions League tie. Messi, as always, is a pivotal figure. But rather than Guardiola, it will be the partnership he has forged with Neymar that could prove crucial.
The illustrious pairing formed two-thirds of the vaunted ‘MSN’ front line at Camp Nou, alongside Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan is the only member of the trio still playing at the sharp end of Spanish football, having won La Liga with Atletico Madrid last season. Neymar was the first to leave that brilliant forward line behind, sacrificing being the junior member of the Messi-led ‘MSN’ to become PSG’s star attraction in 2017. The thinking at the time was that, after winning eight trophies alongside Messi, Neymar wanted to go to a club where it would be his name above the door. The world record fee played into this suggestion, everything about the move seemed to point to the fact Neymar was now in a situation where he, and he alone, would be the superstar.
On paper, the move has been a success. The Brazilian has taken home ten winner’s medals while at Parc des Princes, and three appearances in the Ligue 1 Team of the Year indicate his performances have been pivotal in clinching those. He also won Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2017/18, the season in which PSG won the domestic treble. However, domestic dominance is nothing new to PSG, and you don’t pay €222 million to maintain the status quo. The entire Qatar Sports Investments project in Paris is geared towards winning the Champions League. They did reach their first ever final in 2020, and Neymar has twice appeared in the competition’s Squad of the Season. But the bitter irony is that the man who left Barcelona to prove he was a star capable of winning the biggest prizes on his own, has ended up needing to be augmented by a familiar figure from his past.
Hell froze over during this past summer, when Lionel Messi left Barcelona. While he had agitated to move the previous year, with Manchester City looking like his likely destination, the iconic Argentine ended up staying at Camp Nou. Another glittering campaign from a personal point of view meant that few questioned Messi’s commitment to the Catalan cause, and thus it was a seismic shock when it became clear Barcelona could not afford to keep him. But City no longer presented a viable option. Guardiola had already overseen a £100 million spend on Jack Grealish, and was more keen on pursuing Harry Kane than his former protege.
This left the Parisien giants almost uniquely placed to land Messi. The legendary forward is paid over £600,000 a week at Parc des Princes, a figure few clubs could come close to, particularly post-COVID. As well as the rampant commercial business that the Messi signing would offer a club with a portfolio so wide they even have a deal with the estate of the late pop great Prince, there was the small matter of what he could do on the pitch. Surely adding perhaps the greatest player of all-time could take a club who have reached a semi final and a final in their last two seasons to Champions League glory. Another attractive and much-hyped aspect of this blockbuster transfer was the chance for Messi to once again link-up with Neymar.
It appeared to be of little concern to the PSG paymasters that stepping out of Messi’s shadow seemed to be a motivating factor in Neymar joining them in the first place. Similarly, they seemed unmoved by the club’s other superstar, Kylian Mbappe, asking to leave before the new-look ‘MNM’ frontline had even taken the field. Crucially though, Neymar has seemed relieved rather than overlooked. Perhaps conscious that the last giant step PSG need to take to lift the European Cup is not one he can take alone, the Brazil international has sounded excited and, at times, relieved to have his old partner back.
The fans are pleased with the reunion too. The YouTube video of Messi’s first Ligue 1 goal, last weekend against Nantes, has garnered thousands of comments as you’d expect. A huge number of them are PSG supporters excited by the fact it was Neymar who made the pass for the goal, and touting how much the partnership means to the club’s chances. It is true that any club would benefit from having two world class players dovetailing in such a way, but the Messi-Neymar connection goes deeper than that. These are two men who have reached the very summit of football together in the past, as part of one of the greatest strike-forces ever assembled. If PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino can get this duo firing on a regular basis, it could light the way to clinching that elusive Champions League crown.
Wednesday’s game at Manchester City is the perfect match in which to make such a statement. On a night where the glory years of Barcelona will be at the forefront of people’s minds, it would be apropos for a partnership that flourished post-Pep to be the undoing of Guardiola’s current side. Either way, it is hard to imagine this box office Group A clash not having a touch of vintage Blaugrana about it. Precisely which vintage remains to be seen.