PSG beating Real Madrid would boost Messi amid a difficult season in Paris

Can Lionel Messi silence the critics vs. Real Madrid? (1:51)

Gab & Juls discuss reports suggesting Lionel Messi was unhappy with criticism of his performance in the first leg. (1:51)

On Saturday Feb. 26, after PSG's brilliant 3-1 win against Saint-Etienne in Paris in which he shone and twice set up Kylian Mbappe for goals, Lionel Messi travelled to Barcelona on his private jet.

Before you jump to any conclusions, though: it was for his wife's birthday. Antonela turned 34 that weekend, and of course her husband was always going to be there to celebrate with her, Cesc Fabregas and his wife Daniella, and Luis Suarez and his wife Sofia. But there was one thing the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner insisted on: he travelled with his PSG track suit on. It would have been easy to change after the game at the Parc des Princes, but he didn't want to.

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"He wanted to show his colours. He knew photographs and TV crews would wait for him at the airport, and he didn't want people to maybe have the wrong idea about why he was coming back to Barcelona. He didn't want any confusion or rumours. It was for Antonella's big day, nothing else," says a source at the French club.

You might find this significant (or not) given his fairly low-key season so far, but there is definitely a view that Messi and his family are feeling much more at home in Paris than ever before since their move in the summer.

Consider the seismic change for them all: it was a brutal, somewhat unexpected move after more than two decades of being settled in Barcelona. So many things were different in France compared to Catalonia, and the shock was real -- even for Hulk, the Messi family's big French Mastiff. But that adaptation is now behind them.

Messi's two oldest sons, Thiago (nine years old) and Mateo (six), are now playing for the PSG youth teams -- Ciro, only three, is obviously too young -- and Leo watches them train and play as much as possible. The boys are happy in their international school and have made plenty of friends. The family have also joined a tennis club near their house in Neuilly sur Seine in the posh western suburbs of Paris, not far from where Angel Di Maria and his wife and two daughters also live.

A similar thing happened to Neymar after the Brazilian moved to PSG in the summer of 2017: he just needed time to figure out the lay of the land given the difficulties in adapting to a new team, a new league and a very different environment. In Messi's case, more happiness off the pitch has resulted in being better on it.

After an inconsistent start of the season with some highs -- his goal at home against Manchester City and his brace against Leipzig in the Champions League -- and some lows (an ineffective performance against Marseille among several others) due to some minor injuries, there are definite signs now, six months into his PSG career, that the Argentine is getting close to his best again.

For a start, Messi has had more assists (six) in 2022 than any other player in the big five European leagues. Against Saint-Etienne, he became the first player in French football history to produce five assists against the same club in the same domestic season, having notched three in the reverse fixture against les Verts back in November. These were not just random passes, either. In their win in February, Messi's first was a magnificent through-ball for Mbappé to cap a chess-like move through Saint-Etienne's low block. The second came after he dribbled his way into the box, thanks to two little hooks in a tight space, and he found his teammate for another stylish finish.

Since manager Mauricio Pochettino moved Messi into a more central position, at times even using him in a false 9 role, Messi has been very effective. He's always been a creator even as a prolific scorer his entire career. However, at this stage of his career, at his age (34) and for not being as quick over the first five yards like he used to be, he has adapted his game.

Messi's more of an orchestrator for PSG than finisher. He's been Ligue 1 top assist provider this season with 10, like Mbappe, which is already more than he had in all of LaLiga last season (9), and only a shade below what he managed for Barcelona in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. His goal creating actions per 90 are higher (1.15) than in the previous three seasons in Spain. He produces 2.6 key passes per game, third-highest in the league.

Yet it's also fair to say his scoring form in Ligue 1 has been disappointing compared to expectations. In the Champions League, he has delivered with five goals in six games, despite his potentially costly penalty miss against Real Madrid in the last-16 first leg. (That tie is neatly poised at 1-0 to PSG heading into Wednesday's return fixture at the Bernabeu.) It's been a different story domestically, however: his return of two goals is way below his 6.6 xG based on his shot totals and positioning.

Throughout his career, Messi has always over-performed his xG, often by a big margin too (+12.6 in 2018-19, +9.9 the season before). This season, he has lacked a bit of sharpness in front of goal, hitting the woodwork seven times.

There has also been a notable inability to lift PSG through more difficult games in Ligue 1. PSG's 1-0 defeat at Nice last weekend, the second in the space of two weeks for Paris and Messi after falling 3-1 at Nantes, showed again that the Argentine superstar at times struggles to find the solutions and the answers against well-organised, aggressive opponents. He had zero shots against Nice and only one key pass. More than that, he's become dependent on the players around him and in this team, only Mbappe provides him with those runs and movement, and the France star was suspended for that trip to Nice.

In midweek, PSG and Messi face the biggest game of the season at the Bernabeu, against Real Madrid, where the Argentine has been so good so many times in his career. In 22 games there, he scored 15 goals, won 12 times, drew three times and lost seven. However, he's not scored there since Dec. 2017... and even that was a penalty. He's also not scored in any of his last eight games against the Spanish giants; will that streak continue, or will he snap it and push PSG into the Champions League quarterfinals?

Messi is determined to make the last three months of the season a huge success. He wants to stay for another year even if he is not happy by some of the ratings L'Equipe newspaper has given him so far -- especially the 3 out of 10 he received for his performance and penalty miss in the first leg.

He's also hoping that Mbappe, with whom he has a great relationship, will stick around for a bit longer. The more they play together, the better they get. Their understanding around goal is impressive as we saw against Saint-Etienne, Rennes, Monaco, Man City, Leipzig, Nantes or Brugge -- all games in which one of them assisted a goal for the other. Now that we know that Mbappe is fit enough to travel after his Monday morning injury scare, Messi is relishing this clash with Madrid even more in order to keep progressing in the one competition they want to win more than the rest.

For the moment, there is one thing Messi has not done yet. The bakery at the bottom of his street in Neuilly sur Seine is still waiting to see Messi walking in on a Sunday morning to buy his baguette and some pains au chocolat like a true Parisian...