French champions Paris Saint-Germain have emerged as one of the most formidable teams of the 21st century. They have won 34 trophies since the turn of the millennium and are poised to add another Ligue 1 title to that lengthy list. With 29 of those honors coming in the last decade, including eight Ligue 1 titles and six French Cups they have thoroughly dominated the domestic scene. Since reaching these heights on home soil, their sights have shifted firmly to the continental stage, with the glory of an inaugural UEFA Champions League considered the Holy Grail. Despite assembling a squad the envy of Europe several times over, Les Parisiens have fallen short of their lofty European ambitions time and time again, only reaching the semi-finals twice in the last decade. Considering the vast resources at the club’s disposal since the Qatari takeover it’s fair to suggest the club has not reached its full potential on the European stage. That’s not to say there haven’t been improvements in that spell. The Parisians have been fancied as favorites to lift the iconic trophy aloft on multiple occasions and it was believed that the landmark signing of World Cup winner Lionel Messi from Barcelona in 2021 would be the spark to light the touch paper at Europe’s top table. Sadly though, the Argentine has not had the desired effect and is set to leave the French capital this summer. So how did PSG fall short yet again and why did Messi not live up to the hype?
Before delving into why Messi’s time in Paris was underwhelming, it’s important to remind ourselves that the signing of the little magician hasn’t been an abject failure in its entirety. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has been productive in his run at the Ligue 1 club since joining, contributing 31 goals and 33 assists in 72 appearances amounting to just under a goal contribution per game; a record that by anyone else’s standards would likely earn him a Ballon d’Or nomination. Even in his 14 Champions League appearances for the club he has scored nine goals and assisted on four occasions. His output clearly isn’t the problem as he has matched, if not exceeded, the levels required of him to complete the task he was brought in for; breaking PSG’s Champions League duck. The deep pockets of PSG’s owners meant that they were virtually the only club in world football that could afford the Argentine when he shockingly left Barcelona in 2021 and in doing so they secured the best front-three lineup in world football in Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. The problem lies not in the quality of that lineup, but in the inability to deliver the coveted Champions League trophy like so many before him. His arrival paired with the continued wait for that first European Cup win has become the symbol of everything wrong with PSG’s strategy over the last decade in their pursuit of that accolade. The PSG way in the Qataris’ 12-year tenure at the club has been to sign the big stars, only for problems to emerge off the field as much as on it when facing Europe’s elite. The Parisians’ patience has finally worn thin.
By no means is Messi a scapegoat in the way so many others have been, for one thing, he is making it count in front of goal, actually improving on his debut campaign for the club this season. However, he has not been able to generate the same kind of fervor that has been his trademark for his country or previous club. It would be almost impossible for the 35-year-old to recreate his scoring stats at Barcelona in the twilight of his career, but there’s no denying he has fallen short in producing those match-winning moments he’s capable of and managed to find at the World Cup in 2022. And even more disappointingly for the PSG fans, and perhaps where the issue stems from, is that his worst showings have all come in the Champions League. A costly penalty miss against Real Madrid and not one, but two underwhelming showings against Bayern Munich across two legs the standout pitfalls in the Lionel Messi experiment. The problems have finally come to a head, the ill will reach its peak, and now the recent Saudi trip fiasco appears to be the straw that has broken the camel’s back. Contract negotiations have hit a brick wall and it’s all but guaranteed that the legendary Argentine will be moving elsewhere this summer in the culmination of a flawed strategy from the club’s owners.
As for where he’ll end up, a romantic return to his former club looks the most likely outcome. Barcelona is where Messi made his name and despite their well-documented financial position, the European giants would be more than happy to make some concessions if it meant a return for their greatest-ever goalscorer. A return to the Nou Camp would be the fairytale end to a storied career that he deserves, and it would be foolish to rule out a glorious homecoming at this stage, but with the Saudis ominously looming in the background, there are no guarantees. Following plenty of monetary motivation, Cristiano Ronaldo made the lucrative move to Al-Nassr in the aftermath of Portugal’s unsuccessful World Cup bid. According to betting sites licensed in the US, Messi is +300 to go to Saudi Arabia, while he is +110 to return to Barcelona but with a suspected £250-miilion-a-year contract to play for Al-Hilal on the table, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Messi facing off against Ronaldo once more next season. The lavish transfer to Al-Nassr demonstrated the state’s willingness to splurge millions in the hopes of luring the world’s top stars to their league, and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Messi follow suit. His two-year stint with PSG has barely put a dent in his reputation as he continues to score goals even as he edges closer to retirement, but there’s no denying that he has failed to meet the demands of what he was brought in for; to win the Champions League.