Messi and Mbappe show signs of rapport ahead of do-or-die Bayern trip as Neymar's PSG career fades into insignificance

By Sports Desk March 08, 2023

For Paris Saint-Germain, every new season brings a "this is it" feeling with regards to their Champions League hopes.

It's been the club's obsession ever since the Qatari state poured in their petrodollars back in 2011, and after a few years of building up a head of steam domestically, European success has been the chief aim.

Each pre-season sees the arrivals of new superstars, most years bring a new coach who has the ownership group's vain ambitions thrust upon their shoulders. The faces change, the goal doesn't – and neither, until now, has the ultimate destination.

Here we are in March 2023 and PSG still haven't won Europe's top prize. They find themselves 1-0 down after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Bayern Munich, meaning they need to win at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday.

It feels quite early in the season for such a talented group of players to find themselves in a "do or die" position, but that's the harsh reality.

This kind of situation is arguably the whole point of their vast spending, though: having the world-beaters who can almost single-handedly get you out of such a predicament. After all, a 1-0 deficit is hardly insurmountable.

Obviously, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi will be looked to as the keys to survival and progression. PSG's Qatari overlords might even go as far as saying they were brought to Paris to win the Champions League: that's their job.

Of course, their time together at the club has been blighted by speculation of a fractured relationship, partly due – apparently – to Messi being so close to Neymar, who Mbappe is also said to have become distanced from.

But we're not here to indulge those interested in the kind of juvenile nonsense pedalled by clickbait merchants who're obsessed with the pantomime vilification of anyone/anything.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that Mbappe and Messi genuinely "get" each other on the pitch. Their 21 goal combinations since the start of last season is nine more than any other pairing across the top five leagues.

PSG's excellent 3-0 win over Marseille in Le Classique at the end of February was a prime example of them clearly having rapport. Both of Mbappe's goals were set up by Messi; Messi's goal was set up by Mbappe.

For the first, Messi spotted the devastating run of Mbappe, who applied a clinical finish. They then switched roles for 2-0, the World Cup winner left with a tap-in from his partner's brilliant low cross.

They finished Marseille off in style. Messi's scooped pass released Mbappe, and he emphatically volleyed home from a tight angle.

Granted, it takes more than one match to show a telepathic on-pitch relationship has formed. But them switching it on as a duo shouldn't be sniffed at, particularly in the Classique.

Some might argue the absence of Neymar helped, and will continue to be a positive for the rest of the season.

Neymar will not play again this term due to an ankle injury, in what has seemingly become par for the course for the Brazilian in Paris. By the end of the 2022-23 campaign, he'll have played just 48 per cent of his possible minutes in Ligue 1 since joining, and the highest proportion of league minutes he'll have racked up in a single season will be 54.4 per cent.

But does it matter?

Some will fairly point out Neymar's 34 goal involvements across all competitions this season is bettered only by Mbappe (37) and Erling Haaland (38), and level with Messi. This is true, but does he really carry the same importance as the other two? And, as a trio, are they really as lethal as you might expect them to be?

Since Messi joined, PSG actually have a better win percentage when one of their star trio isn't starting (69.4 per cent, compared to 64.7 per cent). Admittedly that's not a significant difference, but over the same period their win rate when Neymar isn't in the starting XI is 75.9 per cent and 63 per cent when he is.

By comparison, when one of Mbappe or Messi drop out of the line-up, PSG's win percentage falls from 72.9 to 60.

For all his talents, many don't think Neymar will be missed. Former France international Christophe Dugarry is among them.

"I'm happy for PSG that Neymar is injured. I think this is an incredible opportunity for [Christophe] Galtier. The team is much more balanced with five defenders and Mbappe and Messi up front," Dugarry told RMC Sport. 

"I can't watch [Neymar] anymore, I can't stand him anymore. I can't stand his dribbling and that attitude. I don't want to see him on the field anymore, I'm tired."

Proving Neymar's absence makes PSG better is arguably impossible, but Dugarry's comments do strike a chord when he speaks of balance – even Galtier accepts they will be more balanced without the Brazilian.

Galtier does not think it makes them a better team, but that balance is potentially more important at the moment, especially in Europe.

PSG are the only side left in the Champions League who haven't kept a clean sheet in the competition this season, and in all competitions they have only managed two shutouts since the World Cup.

Of course, the situation is slightly more nuanced than being a case of "getting rid of Neymar equals a good defence", but Julian Nagelsmann pinpointed PSG's strength.

"What we need is to prevent them from using their pace," he said. "In Ligue 1, they often defend deep and play on the counter-attack. If you give their attackers too much space and they can unleash their footballing qualities, it's incredibly difficult to defend."

When it comes to pace and speed on the attack, is Neymar really essential for that?

Maybe he was the missing piece all these years. Perhaps, had Neymar not been injured so often in the second half of the season, they'd have won the Champions League by now.

But given how much of the past six years Neymar's missed (52 per cent if you're counting…), it would almost be fitting if PSG went on to win the Champions League without him.

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    Kylian Mbappe will always put the team first and is ready to lead from the front as France prepare to open their Euro 2024 campaign against Austria, says Didier Deschamps.

    Having scored 44 goals in his final season with Paris Saint-Germain before sealing his long-awaited move to Real Madrid, Mbappe will captain his country at a first major tournament, following Hugo Lloris' international retirement.

    Les Bleus are among the favourites but the same was true when they crashed out in the last 16 at Euro 2020, losing to Switzerland in a penalty shoot-out.

    Mbappe failed to score at that tournament, but his coach is certain he is in top condition ahead of Monday's game in Dusseldorf.

    "He is always at the centre of things. That won't change," Deschamps told The Athletic of Mbappe. 

    "He will not do anything that goes against the collective interest. It won't be any problem. He is in very good shape, very happy, and concentrated on working hard. 

    "The most important thing is that he has the greatest possible freedom. My objective is to put him in the best conditions, and put the team in the best conditions, so that he can be as effective as possible."

    Asked about Mbappe's leadership qualities, Deschamps continued: "He speaks but he is not there to be overbearing. 

    "If you are not with him, you don’t see how he is with his partners on a daily basis. He has always been part of a collective project, even if he is an extraordinary player who is able to make a difference on his own."

    Opponents Austria have been touted by some as a potential surprise package after impressing in their first qualification campaign under Ralf Rangnick, finishing just one point behind Belgium.

    "If we're complete, then we're a team that is very hard to beat," the former Manchester United boss said. "We're able to compete with anyone at a high level. 

    "We saw that during friendlies against Germany and Italy [both 2-0 wins], but also during the qualifiers against Sweden [2-0 and 3-1 victories]. 

    "We're not going to the Euros just to participate. We have faith in ourselves and believe we can qualify for the next round."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH 

    Austria – Marcel Sabitzer

    Sabitzer was involved in six goals in seven appearances during Euro 2024 qualifying (four goals, two assists), the most of any Austria player.

    The Borussia Dortmund man also created the most big chances (four) and accumulated the highest expected assists figure (1.6 xA) of any Austrian.

    France – Kylian Mbappe 

    Across the last three major international tournaments (2018 World Cup, Euro 2020 and 2022 World Cup), Mbappe has scored 12 goals. Harry Kane is the only European player to match that tally.

    However, all of those goals have come at World Cups. He failed to convert any of his 14 shots at Euro 2020 and also missed the decisive spot-kick as France lost to Switzerland on penalties. He will be desperate to atone at this tournament, starting on Monday.

    MATCH PREDICTION – FRANCE WIN

    France enter Euro 2024 as one of the favourites, with the Opta supercomputer giving them a 19.1 per cent chance of lifting the trophy before the tournament began. They are expected to live up to that billing here.

    Les Bleus have reached the final at three of their last four major tournaments, being losing finalists at Euro 2016 and the 2022 World Cup and winning the 2018 World Cup.

    They plundered 29 goals in their eight qualifiers, with 14 different players getting on the scoresheet for them (excluding own goals) – the largest spread of any nation. 

    With the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann – who has 18 goal contributions at major tournaments since the start of Euro 2016 (11 goals, seven assists) – supporting Mbappe, they should have too much for Austria.

    Austria have only won one of their last 10 matches against France in all competitions (two draws, seven defeats), triumphing 3-1 in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in September 2008.

    The teams have, however, managed one win apiece from their two previous tournament meetings. Austria claimed a 3-2 victory at the 1934 World Cup, and France won 1-0 at the 1982 competition.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Austria – 15.5% 

    France – 65.8%

    Draw – 18.7%

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    Lionel Messi believes that Valentin Carboni has the ability to follow in his footsteps as Argentina's next star following their 4-1 victory over Guatemala. 

    Messi scored twice to take his international total to 108 goals as La Albiceleste concluded their Copa America preparations with a comfortable display in Maryland.

    Argentina came from behind to secure the triumph after Lisandro Martinez's own-goal gave Guatemala their first-ever goal against their opponents inside the opening five minutes.

    "It cost us the first few minutes, Messi began. "We faced a team that was well positioned at the back. It was an opponent that was difficult to get into, but we were able to find a way around," Messi began.

    "It is going to be more and more difficult for us; nothing is going to be easy for us. But we're going to try again."

    Argentina took the lead before half-time as Carboni was fouled inside the area by Nicolas Samayoa, with Lautaro Martinez stepping up to score his first of the evening. 

    Carboni has impressed in Serie A with Monza this season, scoring two goals and providing four assists, resulting in his first senior call-up from Lionel Scaloni in March. 

    The 19-year-old started his first game for Argentina in the win over Guatemala, and Messi believes he has a bright future on the international stage.

    "He has a present and a great future; we have to take advantage of it," said Messi. "I had already seen him in the U-20 team, but now he has changed, he has improved a lot.

    "The kid is very good, more educated and with a great quality. There are also others who are good and deserve to be seen."

    La Albiceleste start their Copa America campaign on June 21 against Canada in Atlanta, hoping to secure a record 16th triumph at the competition. 

    "We are going to give our best," Messi started."We continue to want to continue trying to win more things.

    "It's not easy, the games are hard, locked, but we will seek to achieve more and more," Messi said.

  • Argentina 4-1 Guatemala: Messi and Martinez star as Copa America holders warm up in style Argentina 4-1 Guatemala: Messi and Martinez star as Copa America holders warm up in style

    Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martinez scored twice for Argentina as they concluded their Copa America preparations with a comfortable 4-1 victory over Guatemala. 

    Argentina found themselves behind inside four minutes when Lisandro Martinez's own goal handed Guatemala their first-ever goal against La Albiceleste.

    However, Messi, who was featuring for the 182nd time for his country, levelled the contest eight minutes later as goalkeeper Nicholas Hagen's poor clearance fell kindly into his path.

    Lionel Scaloni's team were awarded a penalty just before half-time as Nicolas Samayoa fouled Valentin Carboni, with Martinez stepping from 12 yards to score. 

    Messi and Martinez combined for Argentina's third goal, with the latter doubling his tally after he was picked out by his team-mate in the area.

    Messi put the result beyond doubt late on, lofting the ball over Hagen after latching onto a fine pass from his former Paris Saint-Germain team-mate, Angel Di Maria. 

    Argentina kick off their Group A campaign against Canada on June 21 before facing Chile and Peru in their quest to retain their Copa America title. 

    Data Debrief: Messi and Martinez make light work of minnows

    Guatemala were simply no match for their illustrious opponents at FedEx Field, managing only four attempts and getting none of those on target, mustering 0.18 expected goals.

    Argentina finished with 3.07 xG, with Martinez (1.47) and Messi (1.3) responsible for the majority of that figure. Between them, they had 13 shots, nine more than Guatemala managed as a team.

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