Did the Lionel Messi era end with the defeat of Paris Saint-Germain?

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Football Writer

That’s not how it has to end Lionel Messi.

I’m not just talking about the greatest player of all time’s UEFA Champions League debut campaign with Paris Saint-Germain, which ended on Wednesday with Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory in the round of 16.

Now the question must be asked: is the Messi era definitely over?

As hard as it is to admit, the evidence is starting to pile up. With his side knocked out of the world’s top club competition, it’s impossible to ignore him any longer. The cold truth is that the GOAT, who dominated his sport like no other for the better part of two decades and won his record seventh Ballon d’Or award as the best player in the world in 2021, is currently not close to the best players. in the game.

Let’s be clear: it’s not Messi’s fault that PSG, who sang the Argentine living legend last August expressly as the last piece needed to win their first European title, lost to the record 13 champions at the Estadio Bernabéu.

The visitors, who went into the deciding game of the two-legged scoring series with a 1-0 lead after a Kylian Mbappe strike in last month’s opener in Paris, were in complete control during the first hour.

But it was Mbappe, not Messi, who was easily the best player on the pitch for either team. And when France’s World Cup winner scored again to double PSG’s advantage (Mbappe also had two other spectacular goals recalled for offside), PSG looked almost certain to advance to the quarter-finals and to eliminate the hosts in their first knockout game. for the fourth time in five seasons.

Then an error by goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma changed everything. Real Madrid hadn’t done much so far; their best chance was a curled shot from Karim Benzema that Donnarumma put his fingertips around the far post in the first half. But when the Italian backstop took a heavy throw in front of his own net and provided a 61st-minute equalizer for Benzema, Madrid stole all the momentum.

There were 30 minutes left to play. PSG led 2-1 on aggregate. But rather than respond, they imploded. Their confidence was shaken and the skillful combination play with which they had dominated much of the game was gone. Suddenly they couldn’t keep the ball or defend; Benzema’s second and third goals of the night came straight from unforced turnovers.

You can’t attribute anything to Messi. Meanwhile, the former Barcelona headliner was also virtually invisible, a shadow of his former self, in both games against arch-rivals Barca.

The thing is, that’s been the case all season. With just two goals in 17 Ligue 1 appearances, Messi hasn’t adapted to the French premier league. Seven months later, he hasn’t adapted to his new teammates either. That fantasy league frontline of Messi, Mbappe and Brazil star Neymar just didn’t click, apart from a few fleeting moments.

Messi’s Champions League stats have been documented on this disconnect. He scored five goals in the group stage, including one in a memorable win over Manchester City. But he was not signed for the first round. And when it mattered most, Messi was badly beaten by Mbappe (perhaps the best player in the world in his current form), Neymar (who set up Mbappe’s two strikes against Madrid), his 34-year-old compatriot Benzema and the young Real Vinícius Júnior winger. .

With two minutes remaining and a chance to force extra time, Messi had one last chance to restore his legend, to produce yet another piece of magic, as he has done so many times in his incomparable career. Instead, his left-footed free-kick sailed harmlessly over the crossbar as the Bernabéu supporters he had tormented for so long gave mocking cheers.

It certainly wasn’t meant to end like this. After reaching the bottom four the previous two seasons, this was supposed to be PSG’s year. It’s hard to know how different the club will be in 2022-23, but it won’t be the same. Mbappe, who was heavily chased by Real Madrid last summer, looked almost gone even before Wednesday. Ditto for coach Mauricio Pochettino, who is expected to land with Manchester United.

Messi still has one year left on his contract. But realistically, it was his last and best chance to win a fifth Champions League title before hanging up his boots. He will be 35 in June. He will play his fifth World Cup in November. Time finally catches up with him. He’s the only opponent the GOAT has ever had a chance against.

That’s not to say that Messi can’t still delight football fans around the world for a few more years, even if the expectations are different. A turn in MLS is possible. Or maybe he will return to Spain and retire as a Barcelona player. It would be appropriate.

Wherever he goes, we’ll watch him – but perhaps more to remember the unstoppable player he was than the one he inevitably became.

One of North America’s most prominent football journalists, Doug McIntyre has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including several FIFA World Cups. Prior to joining FOX Sports, the New York native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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