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The return of the real Lionel Messi: PSG & Barcelona battling for the revitalised Argentina ace

08:10 BST 08/10/2022
Lionel Messi PSG HIC 16:9
The 35-year-old looked finished during his first season in France. Now he's set to reclaim his status as the best player in the world.

Just before kick-off in Paris Saint-Germain's Ligue 1 meeting with Bordeaux at the Parc des Princes last season, something extraordinary happened.

Lionel Messi's name was booed when the team line-ups were read out by the stadium announcer.

Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time, that Lionel Messi, booed by his own fans.

PSG fans didn't single Messi out for special criticism, of course. Neymar was also booed, even after scoring the second goal in a 3-0 win.

For the disgruntled supporters, the Brazilian was the true symbol of everything that was wrong with PSG; the poster boy for a Qatari play-thing.

The capital club may have been cruising towards another Ligue 1 title but they were once again being ridiculed by the football world after being dumped out of Europe by Real Madrid, after yet another shocking capitulation so unbecoming of such an expensively assembled squad.

Adding Messi to an attack already containing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe was meant to result in a first Champions League triumph; instead, it generated only further embarrassment.

The fans certainly didn't believe Messi was the cause of PSG's problems, but he was one of them as far as they were concerned.

He certainly hadn't been at his brilliant best against Madrid. There had been no dazzling dribbles or precise passes. However, what PSG supporters were really upset about was his movement, or lack thereof.

Former midfielder Jerome Rothen raged on RMC: "He walked around the pitch. Luka Modric had him in his pocket.

"I'm afraid to talk about Messi as a fraud, but it's the reality."

Such talk may have felt like blasphemy but the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner undeniably suffered a spectacular fall from grace last season.

He managed just one goal in Ligue 1 before the turn of the year. He finished with just six to his name. He'd not scored so few league goals since 2005-06, when he was still only 18 and had only just broken into the Barcelona first team.

Messi looked finished. In reality, though, he was just exhausted, physically and emotionally.

For starters, the summer had taken an extraordinary amount out of Messi. After the high of his Copa America triumph with Argentina came the bitter low of his Barcelona exit. Both prompted tears, but for very different reasons.

International glory represented a release, the removal of a weight that Messi had been carrying for years. There was joy there when he collapsed to the turf at the Maracana on the night of July 10, 2021, but also relief.

It felt like a happy ending. His Barcelona exit was anything but.

This time, when the tears began to flow, Messi looked devastated, and in a state of disbelief.

As Luis Suarez said of his former team-mate and close friend, "Leo suffered a lot. I had never seen Messi cry like I saw him cry [in his final press conference] at Barcelona. It hurt him."

Furthermore, the fact that everything happened so quickly left him in a daze.

His move to Paris Saint-Germain was confirmed just two days after he had said goodbye to Camp Nou, giving him barely any time to come to terms with leaving Barcelona, his home for two decades, before trying to start a new life in a new city.

It is not in the least bit surprising, then, that Messi took time to settle in Paris.

House-hunting may be a far more enjoyable experience for multi-millionaires but it took longer than either he or his partner, Antonella Roccuzzo, expected.

Consequently, the Messi family ended up living in a hotel for six weeks, which is nobody's idea of fun – no matter how plush the surroundings.

"The children couldn't take it any longer," the No.10 admitted to Le Figaro.

Messi's debut was also delayed. Understandably, he still hadn't recovered from his exertions with Argentina, so he sat out PSG's first two games of the season.

He was still playing catch-up when he suffered a minor foot injury. Then, came an international call-up. By the end of October, Messi was still struggling to play with any kind of consistency.

Granted, there were flashes of his genius in the familiar surroundings of the Champions League, most memorably against Manchester City, but adapting to Ligue 1 was proving surprisingly problematic.

"In Spain, all the teams try to play a lot more and they keep the ball from you if you don’t press well," Messi explained to Sport.

"Ligue 1 is a more physical league, where games are hotly contested, where there is a lot of back and forth. The players are strong and fast. Physically, it changes a lot."

And Messi was being visibly hindered by niggling injuries that were clearly related to his lack of a pre-season.

There was a noticeable improvement in his play in the second half of the season but a turbulent campaign for PSG ended in acrimony. They may have won the title but they lost the support of many of their fans.

It was clear that significant changes were required and Messi is among those to have benefited from them.

The decision to replace Leonardo as sporting director was considered long overdue in the eyes of the fans, who believed the Brazilian responsible for not only poor signings, but also facilitating a culture of entitlement at the club.

Leonardo also arguably dealt Mauricio Pochettino a bad hand but the Argentine undeniably played it poorly, making his departure inevitable as well.

Hiring Christophe Galtier is certainly looking like an inspired move, with PSG presently unbeaten in all competitions.

What's more, the former Nice boss has already formed an excellent relationship with Messi. The pair speak daily about the Argentine's fitness, his position, and game plans for upcoming opponents.

Messi has surprised Galtier and his coaching team with his tactical understanding of the game, but they've arguably been even more taken aback by the way in which the veteran approached the new season.

There was a growing fear during the transfer window that the departure of Messi's two closest friends, Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes, might see the infamous introvert retreat further into his shell.

However, Messi had already returned to PSG with a totally different mindset. He was determine to make his presence felt.

"I feel good physically because I was able to do a very good pre-season this year," Messi explained to Star+.

"So, that was essential in starting this season in a different way. But I also arrived with a different mentality and a lot of enthusiasm."

Galtier has witnessed both on a daily basis, revealing that Messi is one of the main reasons why he enjoys going to work every morning.

"Leo is always involved in training, always smiling, he interacts with all of his team-mates and is an inspiration for our players," the coach said. "He represents the example to follow.

"I think he is happy and when Leo smiles, the team smiles. He is loved and admired by his peers.”

Which is why he's proved such a valuable member of the squad, a quiet but engaging character capable of defusing the tension in the dressing room.

Indeed, at the start of the season, the simmering feud between Neymar and Mbappe appeared to be reaching boiling point.

However, while the pair's relationship remains strained, Messi has helped bridge the divide with his positive personality.

He has long been friends with Neymar, of course. However, Messi has also struck up an excellent report with Mbappe, never missing a chance to heap praise upon the France forward.

So, while it may be founded upon a fragile alliance, PSG’s feted attacking triumvirate finally appears to be delivering on its enormous promise, with both Neymar and Messi enjoying a renaissance this season.

The World Cup has clearly focused their minds. Messi has admitted that he is counting down the days to what will be his final crack at the tournament.

PSG will be aware of that, of course, but they certainly won't mind, given they are reaping the rewards of having a fit and focused Messi on their books.

He has racked up eight goals and as many assists already this term, while no player across Europe's 'Big Five' leagues has completed more dribbles (53, 15 more than Vinicius Junior).

Consequently, Campos' objective now is to tie the No.10 down to a new deal.

As GOAL revealed earlier this week, PSG are willing to extend Messi's contract until 2024 with the option of another year.

It's certainly possible that he will elect to remain at the Parc des Princes, now that he has finally settled on and off the field.

Contrary to recent reports coming out of Spain and Argentina, Messi has not agreed to rejoin Barcelona next summer. GOAL understands that he will not make a decision on his future until after the World Cup.

For now, he is merely revelling in his renaissance. As are PSG.

Indeed, Galtier was asked last week if the revitalised Messi could reclaim his status as the best player in the world and replied, "If he stays in incredible form, yes! He's fit, and he's happy. And when Leo is happy, he performs."

Last season may have been the worst season of Messi's illustrious career, but this could be one of his best.

Obviously, he's unlikely to post the kind of numbers we saw during his very best years at Barcelona, but with Argentina among the favourites to win the World Cup, and PSG looking like potential Champions League winners, 2022-23 has the makings of a memorable campaign for Messi.

The main thing, of course, is that he's enjoying his football again. He looks like his old self.

The 'fraud' from last season is gone and the real Lionel Messi has returned.

Additional reporting by Marc Mechenoua