It may be unthinkable for many, but after Lionel Messi’s Barcelona exit was confirmed this week, he will be wearing a different club’s shirt next season.
Europe’s top clubs have dreamed about signing Messi for years, but it has never been financially viable. Even without a transfer fee, only a handful can afford him. On Thursday, the 34-year-old’s entourage contacted Paris St-Germain over a possible deal, and talks are ongoing.
Financial Fair Play will complicate matters, even for PSG, but Messi heading to Paris raises the tantalising prospect of a reunion with former Barcelona team-mate Neymar, and linking up with Kylian Mbappe, widely regarded as the heir to Messi’s throne as the best player in the world.
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What would Messi bring to PSG?
Messi’s arrival would take PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino’s options to a different level.
It would certainly create a fascinating dynamic; having been at Barcelona for his entire career, he has more often than not been the focal point in the team. Would that be the case at PSG? Could it cause issues with squad harmony?
His friendship with Neymar is well documented, but escaping Messi’s shadow was reported to be part of the reason for his departure from Barcelona to PSG in 2017. Add Mbappe, and other players like Angel di Maria and Mauro Icardi into the mix, and finding the right balance may be a challenge.
But Messi has thrived in the ‘false nine’ role for years at Barcelona, and his ability to drop deep and create space for Neymar and Mbappe to profit could mean Pochettino deploys him there. In more recent years at Camp Nou, he has operated from the right-hand side.
Key to the main trio working together will be Neymar’s availability. His appearances and goal involvements have declined in his four seasons in Ligue 1, from 19 goals and 13 assists in 20 games in 2017-18 to nine goals and five assists in 18 matches last term, less than half of the league campaign.
It is Mbappe who has taken on the mantle of chief goal threat, scoring 27 league goals, as well as registering seven assists, in 31 league games last year. Messi would certainly add more balance to the set-up, but a question mark hangs over Neymar.
Could this be the best front three Messi will ever play in?
Given his relationship with Neymar and expectation of what Mbappe will become, it is easy to get carried away with the potential of them playing together.
But Messi’s club career has been defined by the strikeforces of which he has been a part; as a teenager, he thrived in a supporting role alongside Ronaldinho, a mentor in his early Barcelona days, and Samuel Eto’o.
It was not until Pep Guardiola’s arrival in 2008, and his decision to replace the Brazilian as the team’s talisman with Messi, when things truly took off. Guardiola guided Barcelona to a first Treble in his debut season, with Messi beginning to play through the middle alongside Eto’o and Thierry Henry.
Only 21 years old at the time, Messi netted 38 goals in 51 matches in all competitions, added to a further 62 from Henry and Eto’o, and went on to win the first of six Ballons d’Or in 2009.
In 2010-11 he was part of an attacking line-up with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez, dubbed ‘MVP’. Fears over how Villa, a natural striker, would perform in a wide role dominated early discourse after he signed from Valencia that summer, but like Eto’o, he begrudgingly accepted his role and helped Barcelona win La Liga and the Champions League. Between the three of them, they scored 98 goals, with Messi grabbing 53.
Perhaps the most famous front three Messi has been involved in is the ‘MSN’, with Luis Suarez and Neymar. Suarez’s arrival from Liverpool in 2014 was a catalyst for change as Messi shifted to the right to accommodate the Uruguayan. In three seasons together, including their first when they led Barcelona to a second Treble, Messi, Suarez and Neymar scored a combined 364 goals with 174 assists.
Which is the best front three in the world right now?
In terms of the current competition for PSG’s prospective new attack, Liverpool’s probably remains the most iconic.
Since Mohamed Salah joined the club in 2017, he, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have scored 273 goals between them and helped add a sixth Champions League crown to the Reds’ collection, as well as a first league title in 30 years.
Bayern Munich’s firepower is enviable. Although Robert Lewandowski stole the headlines by surpassing 40 Bundesliga goals last season, he was ably supported by Serge Gnabry and Thomas Muller.
Cristiano Ronaldo is partnered by Alvaro Morata and the irrepressible Federico Chiesa at Juventus, while the jury is out at both Manchester City and Manchester United, with fans eagerly anticipating the impacts of new signings Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho.
What about the best front three this century?
Messi and Barcelona probably have a real case here, but again, the competition is fierce. Having helped Real Madrid to four Champions League titles in five years between 2014 and 2018, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema were frightening alongside Ronaldo.
Inter Milan and Bayern Munich each won three trophies in 2010 and 2013, with Eto’o becoming the first player to lift successive Champions League titles with different clubs.
He complimented central striker Diego Milito superbly alongside Goran Pandev in Jose Mourinho’s team, while it was Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Mandzukic who made the difference for Bayern under Jupp Heynckes.
Sir Alex Ferguson was famed for building and dismantling teams, but the forward line of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, with Dimitar Berbatov as an excellent fourth option, which went on to clinch domestic and European success in 2007-08, was arguably his best.
AC Milan had Rui Costa providing the bullets for Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi as they won a sixth European crown in 2003, before Clarence Seedorf moved further forward to join Kaka and Inzaghi to clinch a seventh four years later.
The potential for Messi, Neymar and Mbappe to explode is obvious. Their combination will do wonders for the reputation of Ligue 1, but the bar for greatness on a bigger scale is extremely high.
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