It had to be him. The occasion had called for it. The crowd had come to see it and they had spent most of this box office Champions League tie willing it to happen. And then it did.
When Lionel Messi picked up possession and scuttled in from the right at pace, swapping passes with Kylian Mbappé, Manchester City had been carved apart. The chance was on. Paris Saint-Germain were 1-0 up, despite City having had the better of the previous 73 minutes. Now could the maestro pick out the top corner from the edge of the area to secure the win?
It was a silly question, not least for Pep Guardiola, who has seen this movie before – over and again. Of course Messi could. It seemed to happen in slow motion, a swing of the left boot and the ball flying unerringly beyond Ederson before the explosion from the home support.
Out came the phones as the PSG fans captured the I-was-there moment on camera. Guardiola’s shoulders sagged. No player has scored more goals against his teams than Messi, his former protege at Barcelona. It is now seven in five games. This was Messi’s Champions League bow at the Parc des Princes and how he had delivered.
It was cruel on City, who had conceded early to an Idrissa Gueye rocket and asked plenty of questions thereafter. PSG had reason to be thankful to another new signing, the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, for a string of saves. In the end, though, the tie would be defined by Messi’s moment of magic.
City’s focus had been on managing the occasion, on trying to impose their quality as they had done on their previous visit to this stadium. That was in the first leg of last season’s semi-final when they won 2-1 to take a significant stride towards the final.
One big difference. The Parc was empty back then. Now it pulsed with noise and colour. The benchmark for the intensity of European football atmospheres remains Istanbul, Athens and Glasgow. Paris is simply an eclectic kind of raucous, down to the detail of the pre-match music. Was that really the Village People?. The occasion was liberally sprinkled with star dust, with glamour match-ups and none was bigger than Messi versus Guardiola, pupil and teacher from the old Barcelona days. There was never any doubt about Messi going straight back into the PSG lineup after two games out with knee trouble.
There was a buzz whenever Messi got on the ball, as he did in the buildup to the breakthrough goal, although the energy to the move was provided by the ever-dangerous Mbappé. Having played a give-and-go with Messi, Mbappé popped the ball off to Achraf Hakimi and darted for the byline, getting it back and with no City defender having tracked him.
Mbappé cut back low for Neymar, who fluffed the shot but, when Kyle Walker could not clear, Gueye nipped in, getting the ball out of his feet and crashing an unstoppable drive into the far top corner.
City responded. Confidence in possession was not restricted to those in the dark shirts and Jack Grealish was prominently involved off the left. He did not care when it did not come off for him; he was always back for more, running at Hakimi, teasing him. City were also quick to switch the play across to Riyad Mahrez.
It remains a mystery as to how City did not equalise in the 27th minute after Kevin De Bruyne picked out Raheem Sterling in the middle with the outside of his boot. It was a sumptuous cross and Sterling had to score only to head against the crossbar. Then Bernardo Silva really had to score and yet, from point-blank range and with an open goal gaping, he somehow lifted the ball up and against the crossbar. Presnel Kimpembe cleared.
City had more than enough of the first half to have been level at the end of it. João Cancelo and Rúben Dias extended Gianluigi Donnarumma and there were other nervous moments for PSG. It felt as though City could spring men in behind them.
PSG’s threat came to be measured on the counter but that is where Mbappé comes in. He blasted around the back on 38 minutes to tee up Ander Herrera only for Ederson to tip over. Should City have finished the first half with all 11 players on the pitch? De Bruyne’s challenge on Gueye in the 39th minute did not look malicious in that he stretched to play the ball but he ended up planting his studs into his opponent’s calf. It did not look good on the replays but VAR were happy with the yellow card that was given in the moment.
It was only the third time that Messi, Mbappé and Neymar had started together and the focus was inevitably drawn towards them. And yet further back, Marco Verratti showed why he must be considered as one of the most complete central midfielders in the game. He won the ball and he moved it smoothly, although everything was underpinned by his ability to read the play.
Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation offered the scope for De Bruyne to drift into the No 10 position and he ran on to a clever Mahrez pass on 55 minutes, the angle tight on the right but the shooting chance on. Again, Donnarumma made the save.
Neymar had gone close after sprinting away from Walker but it was City who pressed onto the front foot. Guardiola sent on Phil Foden for Grealish, who had hit a wall in the second half. Enter Messi.