AFP/ Bruges, Belgium
• If Neymar and Mbappe start too, it will be the first time the star attacking trio will have been on the pitch together
Lionel Messi came to Paris to win the Champions League again and today he is set to finally make his first start for his new club when they kick off their European campaign in Bruges. Five weeks have passed since Messi was presented as a Paris Saint-Germain player and declared he was in “the ideal place” to win the biggest prize in club football for the fifth time.
In more than a month he has been seen in a PSG jersey for just 24 minutes as a substitute in a Ligue 1 game at Reims. The 34-year-old had been expected to make his full debut for the Qatar-owned club last weekend but in the end he was rested against Clermont after returning from international duty with Argentina.
However, PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino is expected to finally unleash the six-time Ballon d’Or winner from the start at the Jan Breydel Stadium against Belgian champions Club Brugge in the Group A opener.
If Neymar and Kylian Mbappe start too, it will be the first time the superstar attacking trio will have been on the pitch together for the Parisians. Expectations are sky-high, both for Messi at his new club and for PSG in the Champions League, a trophy they have yet to win but crave more than anything.
PSG will play Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City — the team that knocked them out in last season’s semi-finals — as well as RB Leipzig in a group that could hardly have been tougher, but this is a team built to go all the way.
“It makes me think of Liverpool when I arrived there. Liverpool were building a team to win the Premier League. Here I have joined a team that has been built to win something. I said to myself: ‘This is going to be massive’,” Georginio Wijnaldum, another of PSG’s summer signings, said.
They should, at the very least, be far too strong for their first opponents, even if the former European Cup finalists have been Belgian champions in three of the last four seasons. The last time PSG went to Bruges was in the group stage two years ago.
There was no Messi then, and there was no Neymar either, but Mbappe bagged a hat-trick in a 5-0 win. This summer Wijnaldum and Messi were joined at the Parc des Princes by Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, flying full-back Achraf Hakimi and former Real Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos, as well as Portuguese prospect Nuno Mendes.
Ramos has not played at all yet, while Messi has been slowly preparing himself, but PSG have still won five games out of five in Ligue 1, scoring 16 goals. Their recruitment drive, coupled with their decision to knock back up to 200mn euros from Real Madrid for Mbappe even with the France star in the final year of his contract, has had some of their European rivals up in arms.
Coach Pochettino warned that he had not yet turned his stellar cast of players into a team. “We’re not a team yet. We are a club that has recruited many players this summer. There are some big names but we have to turn into a team,” Pochettino said yesterday.
“We are a group of players who need to achieve results. There’s a feeling that we’re (PSG and Chelsea) the two teams to beat but Chelsea are the holders so they’re the team to beat especially after strengthening their squad.”
Pochettino has choices to make in attack, but perhaps more significantly, he will need to pick between Keylor Navas and Gianluigi Donnarumma to play in goal after the Italian keeper joined the club having led the Azzurri to the European title. “We’ll decide game by game. I think it’s the fairest thing. The reality is that having those two in the squad makes us happy,” he said.
“The season is long and having them will benefit the club. Every player knows that when you sign for PSG there will be competition. It’s very clear that there are only 11 starters among which only one goalkeeper.”
Group A: Club Bruges vs Paris Saint Germain; Man City vs RB Leipzig
Group B: Atletico Madrid vs FC Porto; Liverpool vs AC Milan
Group C: Besiktas vs Borussia
Dortmund; Sporting Lisbon vs Ajax
Group D: Sheriff Tiraspol vs Shakhtar Donetsk; Inter Milan vs Real Madrid
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