Now it is real. Lionel Messi played his first club match as a Not Barcelona player, entering as a 66th minute substitute for Paris Saint-Germain, who won at Reims thanks to Kylian Mbappé. PSG are adamant the pair will play together again despite Real Madrid’s bid to prise Mbappé away.
“Our chairman and Leonardo are very clear: he is here with us,” said Mauricio Pochettino after watching his striker seal victory. “I am very happy to have him. He is a gift.”
If Mbappé is a gift, then Messi was the ultimate free agent before PSG signed him three weeks ago. This was a fitting venue for him to make his bow. Where better for such a high-class recruit to begin than in the capital of the Champagne region? And let us not forget that for over 1,000 years Reims was the city where France consecrated its kings, from Louis the Pious in 816 to Charles X in 1825. In 2021, behold Lionel the Goat. Messi the One and Only.
A funny thing about Charles X. He came to the throne at a time of renewed scorn for the monarchy. He attempted to reassert its legitimacy by claiming he had inherited the “royal touch”, a god-given ability to perform miracles. He was a fraud, and his charlatanism contributed to the downfall of the regime he had sought to revive. PSG are counting on Messi and his undoubted magic, even if dwindling, having the opposite effect.
This was a royal visit that the masses did not want to miss. Reims’ first match of this season attracted less than 9,000 spectators. As soon as news broke that Messi might be coming to town, 20,525 tickets were snapped up.
Messi began on the bench because he is still toning up having not played since July’s Copa America final, or because Pochettino is a big tease. Instead Ángel Di María filled the right-hand prong of PSG’s attacking trident while Messi sat beside Gianluigi Donnarumma in a dugout de luxe.
PSG started like they meant to put on a show. Right-back Achraf Hakimi, a lesser vaunted but excellent summer hire, zipped a pass into Mbappé in the 10th minute. The forward spun beautifully past his marker but poked wide.
Reims wanted to prove that they too had talent. Ilan Kebbal cut through midfield and fed El Bilal Touré, who slashed wide from 15 yards. Mbappé soon put them back in their place, leaping high to nod into the net from six yards after Di María spooned the ball over to him from the right.
As Gini Wijnaldum and Idrissa Gueye patrolled midfield, where Marco Verratti pulled strings like a maestro, PSG took control. This is a problem for them: domestic comfort makes for poor preparation for the Champions League.
At times even they seem bored by their superiority: here they became sloppy. Although they often get away with that in Ligue 1, last season’s failure to win the title should have taught them to sharpen up at least a little. But Reims nearly punished them before half-time, Moreto Cassamá hitting the post from 20 yards after Gueye absent-mindedly gave him the ball.
Apparently Pochettino could not rouse his players. Two minutes into the second half the hosts celebrated an equaliser after Marshall Munetsi bundled the ball into the net. The goal was disallowed after a long VAR review. Soon locals exulted again – this time because Messi started limbering up. Punters wanted to see him in action. PSG needed him.
The prospect of Messi coming on convinced PSG to pull themselves together. They made it 2-0 just before his entrance, Mbappé crowning a brilliant counter-attack by slotting in from six yards after a cross by Hakimi.
Then – to claps and chants from the whole crowd – Messi stepped on to the pitch for the first time as a Ligue 1 player. No one seemed to mind that he replaced Neymar, ruining the public’s hopes of seeing a rare alignment of stars.
Excitement pulsed through the crowd when Messi collected the ball mid-way inside the Reims half in the 77th minute. He ran at the defence with that bewildering short-stepped skitter. As three defenders converged on him he slipped the ball through to Mbappé, who – noblesse oblige – declined to shoot and tried to set up Messi for the goal that even many home fans seemed to want. Reims got some satisfaction by getting in the way.
“It’s difficult at the moment because our players are all at differrent levels of fitness,” said Pochettino, who hailed the influence of his celebrated compatriot.
“Every time he touched the ball, he spread calm throughout the team. He is Messi: he can radiate an optimism and energy that everyone can feel and that have a positive influence on our players. And it’s important even for Lionel Messi to win on his debut.”