It’s fair to say things haven’t been going according to plan for Paris Saint-Germain since the Champions League restarted last month.
They fell apart towards the end of their first leg against Real Madrid, allowing 2-1 to become 3-1 in very short order, and have since lost Neymar to what experts inform me must be referred to as a *dreaded* metatarsal injury.
Unai Emery’s team should not assume all is lost, though, and they can take all the incentive they need from last season’s calm before the storm.
There was no Neymar for last season’s last-16 clash either – well there was, but he was on the other side as Barcelona were brushed aside 4-0 at the Parc des Princes.
Of course, Barça responded with a 6-1 victory in the second leg, but Emery would be missing an open goal by not telling his players ‘you’ve done it before against one of the Spanish giants, so you can do it again’.
The goalscorers from that four-goal demolition are still available – Ángel di María scored twice that night, with Julian Draxler and Edinson Cavani scoring one each – and they’ll also be able to call upon Adrien Rabiot, who produced the other moment of the match: one which will be both easier and much, much harder to replicate.
An hour into last season’s game, with PSG already remarkably three goals to the good, Lionel Messi entered the doing everything himself stage of the match. Or at least he tried to.
The Argentine ran from deep, attempting to beat Blaise Matuidi before seeing a pass intercepted by Marco Verratti, who proceeded to nudge the ball free. Rabiot got to the loose ball first, jump-spinning into space as if preparing for a roundhouse kick but then calmly landing.
At this point it might have been easier for the Frenchman to keep his position; while not the biggest or most robust player – if you could call any man over six feet tall ‘slight’ then it’s him – he would have had the measure of Messi had push literally come to shove.
Instead he decided to continue spinning, purely so he could do this…
As I’ve explained here before, nutmegging attacking players is far more satisfying than doing the same to defenders. Even if they don’t necessarily stand and applaud, you can sense them doing so silently and plotting new ways to pay it forward.
When you nutmeg Messi, you’re also nutmegging everyone Messi has himself nutmegged in the past. No one can claim to be immune from the latter – indeed, a long-retired Messi, well into his 70s, will be able to make most of us look like chumps – but the former gives you something to throw back in his face forever.
Add in the fact that it’s a drag-back nutmeg, and you’re pretty much set for life.
It amounts to Rabiot and his team-mates playing a game of piggy-in-the-middle with the best player in the world with ball at feet, and the expression on Messi’s face tells its own story about how rare it is to see this sort of thing.
He has never been used to chasing down, or at least to being the sole chaser-downer, and his usual on-pitch calm gives way to an almost animalistic instinct.
An on-song Messi, or even a Messi without the pressure of a three-goal deficit, would not allow himself to be nutmegged there or indeed anywhere. He would be tight on his man but not vulnerably so, or he would stand off enough to get a clear sight, but there’s no way he’d be out-thought or even out-instincted, depending on how generous you want to be to Rabiot.
You can see the switch flicking back almost in time, as if snapping out of an out-of-body experience. Messi attempts to withdraw a boot, but not to block the ball; his movement is purely to avoid the shame of being nutmegged. He’s hoping that, by pulling out at the last minute, the PSG player still wins but he doesn’t fully lose. He fails.
Now, there will be some killjoys out there arguing Rabiot shouldn’t have embarrassed Messi in this way; that the move was akin to poking an alligator or waving a red rag to a bull.
However, while Barcelona and Messi did produce a stunning turnaround in the second leg, this does not make Rabiot’s actions any less valuable or any less necessary.
There’s a school of thought that says you shouldn’t showboat against Barcelona in any circumstances – that you shouldn’t do so in a tight game because if you have time to showboat then you have time to attack and score, and that you shouldn’t in a less tight game because you don’t want to risk anything capable of snapping them into immediate action.
Both of these schools of thought are unequivocally wrong.
If you’re in a tight game against Barcelona, you showboat because how many chances are you going to get to nutmeg Lionel Messi?
If you’re 3-0 up and cruising, you showboat because, and I can’t stress this enough, how many chances are you going to get to nutmeg Lionel Messi?
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There’s arguably even more incentive for Rabiot to get back on his bullshit against Real Madrid this week.
First of all, if we listen to the experts then PSG are all but out, so they have very little to lose.
Secondly, without the magic of Neymar at their disposal (and potentially without Kylian Mbappé), the key to success may well be mental. Unable to rely on the magic of one or two of their best attacking talents, the best bet may be doing to Madrid what Barcelona did to them 12 months ago, and forcing them into an unlikely collapse.
Now, while Messi might react in a certain way to an on-field humbling, one can only imagine how someone like Cristiano Ronaldo might respond, and there are enough clues from Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane’s playing past to convince PSG the main target shouldn’t be the Spanish club’s defence but rather their pride.
If you see PSG take the game to their opponents with a high press in the opening 15 minutes, fair enough – Emery might have chosen to go down the classic route.
But if you see them begin the game treating the game like a friendly and throwing flicks, tricks and stepovers all over the pitch, don’t be confused – maybe it’s all part of the plan.
By Tom Victor
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