Lionel Messi is peaking at the right time for PSG and the World Cup | Lionel Messi

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Lionel Messi’s first season in Ligue 1 would have been considered a success for most players. He scored 11 goals and provided 15 assists in 34 games for PSG, contributing directly to a goal every 110 minutes he was on the pitch. However, given his previous numbers – he had not dropped below one goal or assist per game since the 2006-07 season – it looked like the Argentinian was past his world-beating zenith. It turns out people have been too quick to write him off.

Messi’s form last season was affected by injuries, Covid and settling into new surroundings. His campaign was defined by his worst displays, rather than his best. His missed penalty and erratic display against Real Madrid in the last-16 stage of the Champions League stood out. He also struggled to adapt to Ligue 1, a pragmatic, physical league that is filled with teams who are well practised in deploying compact low-blocks.

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As the season wore on, his influence grew as he moulded his style to fit his surroundings. Nevertheless, having won last year’s Ballon d’Or, Messi was still omitted from this year’s 30-man long list after making the top five every year since 2006. That was despite having a better goals and assists per 90 minutes ratio than Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Sébastien Haller, Luis Díaz and Rafael Leão, all of whom play in similar positions yet made the list. Criticism of the decision to award Messi a somewhat generous seventh prize in 2021 may have had an impact.

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Supporting Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, Messi became more of a deep-lying playmaker at PSG and he still led the league for assists per 90 minutes as well as progressive passes, through balls and passes into the area. However, despite scoring some crucial goals that carried PSG through a tricky Champions League group, he was far less decisive than he had been in Spain. French sports daily L’Équipe awarded him four or below in their match ratings on 10 occasions in Ligue 1 last season as Mauricio Pochettino’s stale PSG side eased to the title almost by default as a group of evenly matched chasing teams took too many points from each other for one challenger to emerge.

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He performed better than some reports suggest, but he was passive, seemingly on autopilot, and the 2021-22 season goes down as a career low point. That decline, however, has been reversed since the summer. Messi has already scored more goals this season than he managed last term. He has contributed directly to 25 goals, a figure only Erling Haaland and Neymar can match in Europe’s top five leagues.

More importantly, his swagger has returned. Last season, the classic burst of pace and change of direction that Messi employs to beat defenders and break lines seemed to have disappeared. However, even at 35, his intensity and willingness to take on defenders has gloriously resurfaced this season.

Messi’s iconic deadweight passes that so often split defences and found teammates in crowded penalty boxes initially failed to travel with him to Ligue 1. This season has been different, though, with many of his 13 assists being perfectly timed through balls. As Maccabi Haifa found out in the Champions League last week during a 7-2 thrashing, his ability to manufacture an inch of space around the penalty area thanks to a shimmy or an exchange of passes before firing a bending snapshot into the net is also returning to devastating effect.

Perhaps most importantly, Messi’s emotions have resurfaced. Although famously low-key and shy off the pitch, the sullen demeanour and blank expression that persisted last season have been replaced by exchanges of broad smiles with celebrating teammates and a fire in his eyes, as shown by the way he celebrated after scoring a long-range thunderbolt in PSG’s 4-3 win over Troyes this weekend. Messi seems to be enjoying himself again. Reports suggest he has now settled in Paris and is enjoying life in France, with the possibility of a third, or even fourth, year at PSG already being discussed.

Messi clearly sees this is a pivotal season. He says the World Cup in Qatar next month will be his last and he has timed his peak perfectly. He has struggled with tiredness during previous tournaments at the end of long club campaigns but the early World Cup may suit him perfectly. Messi knows that a triumph for Argentina in Qatar would cement his place as perhaps the greatest player of all time. This may also be his last season playing alongside Mbappé and Neymar for PSG, giving him his best chance of winning another Champions League title, seven years after his last.

Despite exaggerated reports of his demise, Messi has proven his best may not be behind him just yet. With the chance of winning his first World Cup and PSG’s first Champions League on the horizon, this could be the season of his life.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Auxerre 1-0 Ajaccio

Brest 0-0 Reims

Monaco 2-0 Angers

Nantes 1-1 Clermont

Rennes 3-0 Montpellier

Lorient 1-2 Nice

Lyon 1-0 Lille

PSG 4-3 Troyes

Strasbourg 2-2 Marseille

Lens 3-0 Toulouse 

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Talking points

Kasper Schmeichel was outstanding for Nice as they beat Lorient.
Kasper Schmeichel was outstanding for Nice as they beat Lorient. Photograph: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Ligue 1’s surprise side of the season so far, Lorient, are now winless in three games after a 2-1 home defeat to struggling Nice. Having kept pace with PSG for much of the campaign, they have dropped to a still-remarkable fourth after 13 games. Dynamic rookie coach Régis Le Bris need not worry, however, as his team are still playing well. They tore Nice apart for the first hour, but failed to score a crucial second goal thanks to a string of sharp stops from Nice goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. A moment of brilliance from Youcef Atal and a deflected effort from Gaëtan Laborde gave Nice a flattering win. Lorient were also unfortunate in their 2-2 draw at Troyes last week. They are here to stay.

Promoted Toulouse have become one of Ligue 1’s most exciting and progressive teams this season, led by the delightful passing of midfielder Branco van den Boomen, a number of quick and skilful forwards, and a smattering of young talent. However, Philippe Montanier’s team were beaten 3-0 by Lens on Friday night. Loïs Openda came off the bench and scored a hat-trick for Lens, who were dominant throughout. Franck Haise’s team are up to second in the table and a Champions League spot seems to be theirs for the taking.

Ligue 1 table

This is an article from Get French Football News
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