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Lionel Messi’s PSG form: Not the best in the world anymore but still great as Argentina prepare for Wembley | football news

Lionel Messi has history at Wembley. It was there that Barcelona beat Manchester United to win the Champions League in 2011. “No one gave us shit like that,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. Rio Ferdinand turned to his teammates as the trophy was raised. “I’m ashamed,” he said.

Messi was man of the match that night and he was man of the match when he returned to the stadium to play against Tottenham in 2018. He scored twice in a 4-2 win, hitting the post twice and leaving many stunned on the ground. “Messi eats at a separate table,” said Barca teammate Jordi Alba.

It was a comment partly in response to Messi’s exclusion from the first three of the FIFA awards ceremony held in London just days earlier. “With all due respect,” Ivan Rakitic said after this amazing performance, “there’s one guy who’s better than the rest.”

The best feature in the world

Messi returns to Wembley on Wednesday night to captain Argentina against Italy in the Finalissima, a match between the champions of South America and Europe. He’s doing this while his status as the world’s top player has slipped and his reputation is being reconfigured.

He’s no longer in the Ballon d’Or bill, anointing Karim Benzema as a worthy winner of that award. Instead, there was criticism of him at Paris Saint-Germain. With just six league goals, it’s hard to argue that Messi is the best player on his team, let alone the world.

Which puts the rest of us in an odd position, as perhaps the greatest person to ever play this game finds himself back in the pack. Still elite, of course, but no cut above it. The best of all time, but not the best now. No wonder that sporting icons prefer to retire at the top.

Usain Bolt immediately retired after being passed at a major championship for the first time in a decade. Box sizes are told to stop immediately if they slack off. Those smart enough to do so are commended for protecting both their reputations and their health.

But away from the world of fistfighting, there’s plenty to enjoy as a legend plays on. The sight of Tiger Woods making a comeback or a chance to see Roger Federer with the forehand again is not to be missed. Fans at Wembley Stadium are hoping for another Messi moment.

How good is Messi now?

Look past the lack of goals and even in decline there is evidence that Messi remains an exceptional footballer. Pep Guardiola recently lamented the limitations of statistics when evaluating player contributions. Summarizing Messi with goals has never felt satisfying.

There were near misses last season. He’s hit the net with free-kicks more than anyone in France. But it is inevitable that there has been an alarming drop for a player who has averaged 35 league goals per season over his last 12 years with Barcelona.

In just a few weeks, Messi will turn 35 and there shouldn’t be anything controversial about the claim that his level has dropped. The eye test reveals that much. The old gait is gone. He still has the ability to outrun men more than a decade his junior, but cannot outrun them.

Expectations when he arrived in Paris were so high that many there were disappointed. The French newspaper’s player ratings L’Equipe are notoriously harsh, but they highlight the baggage Messi brought with him. People demand the best.

Described as losing in a game against Rennes, he received a rating of just four out of 10. This was a game in which he created the most chances for his teammates and completed the most dribbles of any player on the pitch. That was far from enough for his critics.

But he had his moments against Nice L’Equipe gave it a grade of just three out of ten. He was PSG’s sharp player against Nantes but was rated a four. Against Monaco when Kylian Mbappe scored with his solo run? Corresponding L’Equipe, he looked lost again. Four.

The memory of those wonderful years at Barcelona is so vivid that it’s difficult to judge Messi by any yardstick other than his own – and nobody has matched that before or since. With a rethink, you might realize that the old maestro can still play a bit.

Messi’s former manager might not approve of the increased use of stats, but they can be useful in taking the emotion out of the analysis. Remove the prejudice, the narrative of a disaffected footballer, a player in decline, and a different picture emerges.

The popular website who scored calculates its player ratings based only on the event data – passes, shots, chances created, tackles and much more. This dispassionate view of Messi’s level of performance suggests he remains one of the best players around.

His average ratings this season make him the second-best player in France and third-best in all major European leagues last season – only behind Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski.

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Lionel Messi hits back at Robert Lewandowski after Ballon d’Or dispute

It has often been said that Messi is an alien. Well, how would his performances be rated if a player producing those performances had appeared out of nowhere this season? Would it be different if he was judged by what is happening now and not by what was before?

It’s likely that he’s still considered the game’s most creative player.

In February’s win over Saint-Etienne, Messi threaded a clever pass between four opposing players to find Mbappe to equalize, then rushed into the box between three men to set the same player up for what turned out to be a winning goal for PSG .

A week earlier in Nantes, his pass to Neymar knocked out eight opponents to allow the Brazilian to score. Perhaps you would have preferred to put that delightfully kinked pass behind the defense at Saint-Etienne in November to set Angel Di Maria up for the winner.

That was one of the assists’ hat tricks of the game. There were 14 in total, the third most in Europe’s top leagues. He completed more through balls than anyone else. Those through-balls like the one that found Mbappe really underscore the difference between Messi and the rest.

Through ball by Lionel Messi
Picture:
Through ball by Lionel Messi

This metric has long been indicative of his vision. Since 2010 there have been 199 of them in the Champions League. He’ll likely hit his double-century through ball before any other player comes up with three numbers in that time. It’s outrageous, a Don Bradman-esque contrast.

This points to his historic brilliance with the ball at his feet in the opposition half and with runners in front of him. But Messi has also thrown more through balls than anyone else in the Champions League this season to. The pace has slowed, but the creativity remains.

Mbappe’s performances while wearing the same kit make it impossible to argue that Messi is a cut above the rest these days. But look beyond the goalscoring stats, try to look at his performances with fresh eyes and it’s quick to see that this is still an amazing player.

Finding joy in Messi’s final act

In that sense, there may soon be a reassessment.

At least there is a precedent and a pattern to this.

Dominance causes division and then ridicule from those who like to think they spotted weaknesses before the others. Messi’s controversial Ballon d’Or win last year did him few favors – reinforcing the view that this special player was given special treatment.

Lionel Messi

But there is always the next phase. Known as the King of the Crucible, Stephen Hendry found more affection among the snooker crowd when he was no longer at the top. Michael Schumacher had Formula 1 fans cheering him on like never before when he made a surprise return to the sport.

We are now in the final act. Unlike theatre, sport rarely saves the best for last. But there will be a touch or a turn, maybe even goals and glory. There’s the tantalizing prospect of something that will shake up the crowd and send someone home happy. And that’s not nothing.

It will be impossible for Messi to do anything to match his greatest performances at Wembley on Wednesday night. But there will be youngsters in that crowd who have never seen him play before, and many more who fear they may never see him live again.

It’s time to cherish every Messi moment that we have left.

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