Did the Lionel Messi era end with Paris Saint-Germain’s loss?

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By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

This is not the way it’s supposed to end for Lionel Messi.

I’m not just talking about the greatest player of all time’s first UEFA Champions League campaign with Paris Saint-Germain, which came grinding to a halt Wednesday with Real Madrid’s 3-1, round of 16 win.

Now the question must be asked: Is the Messi era over for good?

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

Let’s get this straight: It isn’t Messi’s fault that PSG, which singed the Argentine living legend last August expressly as the final piece needed to win their first European title, lost to the record 13-time champs at Estadio Bernabéu.

The visitors, who entered the decisive match of the two-leg, total-goals series up 1-0 after a Kylian Mbappe strike in last month’s opener in Paris, were in total control for the first hour.

But it was Mbappe, not Messi, who was easily the best player on the field for either team. And when the French World Cup-winner scored again to double PSG’s advantage (Mbappe also had two other spectacular would-be goals called back for offside), PSG looked all but certain to advance to the quarterfinals and eliminate the hosts in their first knockout matchup for the fourth time in five seasons.

Then an error by keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma changed everything. Real Madrid hadn’t done much to that point; their best chance was a curling Karim Benzema shot that Donnarumma fingertipped around the far post in the first half. But when the Italian backstop took a heavy touch in front of his own net and gift-wrapped a 61st-minute equalizer to Benzema, Madrid stole all the momentum.

There were 30 minutes still to play. PSG were up 2-1 on aggregate. But rather than responding, they imploded. Their confidence was shaken, and the slick combination play with which they’d dominated large portions of the match disappeared. Suddenly, they could not keep the ball or defend; Benzema’s second and third goals of the evening came directly from unforced turnovers.

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You can not pin any of that on Messi. At the same time, the former Barcelona headliner was also mostly invisible, a shadow of his former self, in the two games against Barca’s chief rival.

The fact is that has been the case all season. With just two goals in 17 Ligue 1 appearances, Messi hasn’t adapted to France’s top league. Seven months in, he hasn’t adapted to his new teammates, either. That fantasy-league front line of Messi, Mbappe and Brazilian star Neymar simply hasn’t clicked, outside of a few fleeting moments.

Messi’s Champions League stats papered over 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 out-performed by Mbappe (perhaps the world’s best player on current form), Neymar (who set up both Mbappe strikes versus Madrid), fellow 34-year-old Benzema and young Real winger Vinícius Júnior .

With two minutes remaining and a chance to force extra time, Messi had one final chance to burnish his legend, to produce yet another piece of magic, like he has so many times throughout his incomparable career. Instead, his left-footed free kick sailed harmlessly over the crossbar as the Bernabéu fans he tormented for so long let out a derisive cheer.

It certainly wasn’t supposed to end like that. After they reached the final four the previous two seasons, this was supposed to be PSG’s year. It’s hard to know how different the club will look in 2022-23, but it won’t be the same. Mbappe, heavily pursued by Real Madrid last summer, appeared as good as gone even before Wednesday. Same for coach Mauricio Pochettino, who is widely expected to land with Manchester United.

Messi has a year left on his contract. But realistically, this was his last, best chance to win a fifth Champions League title before he hangs up his cleats. He turns 35 in June. He’ll play in his fifth World Cup in November. Time is finally catching up to him. It’s the only opponent the GOAT never stood a chance against.

That’s not to say Messi can’t still thrill soccer lovers across the globe for a few more years, even if the expectations are different. A turn in MLS is possible. Or maybe he’ll return to Spain and retire as a Barcelona player. That would be fitting.

Wherever he goes, we’ll watch – though perhaps more for the memory of the unstoppable player he used to be than for the one he has inevitably become.

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


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