PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN vs MANCHESTER CITY: The latest chapter in modern football’s fiercest rivalry takes place in Paris this evening, and a new character has entered the fray
They’ll know all about that famous Barcelona motto, but as Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola go head-to-head in Champions League combat in Paris this evening it might just need a little tweak.
Because this is about more than two clubs.
It isn’t only about Paris Saint-Germain vs Manchester City. It is also Qatar vs United Arab Emirates. Nasser Al-Khelaifi vs Sheikh Mansour. Champions League vs Super League.
And now this. Messi vs Guardiola.
There might be some who feel a little sad that it has come to this for the pair who dazzled in that dizzy four-year spell in Catalonia, a time when Guardiola patrolled the sidelines and Messi added that sprinkling of genius to every tactical and inspirational instruction given.
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The pair won three La Liga titles together, as well as two Champions Leagues, two Copa del Reys, a host of other trophies and many personal accolades, but the union wasn’t destined to last. It has long gone now.
At the end of this season it will be a decade since Guardiola and Messi were on the same team, and football has changed hugely since then.
As they lock horns this week, they do so in the midst of one of the modern game’s biggest and bitterest rivalries.
The rivalry on the football pitch may be what sustains our attentions, but on the global scale it has raged and raged.
Qatar and the UAE support rival forces in the Middle East, with the Emiratis defiantly opposed to the Islamist groups that Qatar back, and both states taking every opportunity to get one over on each other, whatever form that takes.
The recent Gulf blockade heightened tensions even further, as allegations of human rights abuses continue on both sides.
If all of this seems so far removed from the football bubble that star names live in and in which star games are played then it won’t be soon, with the Qatar World Cup on the horizon next year.
This Champions League fixture is about to take place for the fifth time in just over five years too, and whether the political situation should matter to a PSG or City fan, or to Messi or Guardiola, can be questioned, the on-pitch rivalry is growing.
That PSG are facing City in the Champions League will already make the hosts feel as though they are at something of an advantage. Unlike many at City, the Paris club’s president Al-Khelaifi doesn’t flinch when he hears that familiar music before kick-off.
Al-Khelaifi’s presence and influence within UEFA continues to grow, as does his bank balance as the chairman of the beIN Media Group, the broadcaster which exclusively airs the Champions League throughout the Middle East.
Little wonder then that he had no interest in a European Super League, the project backed by City and five fellow Premier League sides among a rebel 12 across Europe some five months ago. It seems a lot longer.
The PSG president emerged from that debacle with a new role as the chairman of the European Club Association, ensuring that he has a perfect chance to keep UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin onside. “He is a man I can trust,” said the Slovenian lawyer, fulsome in his praise for PSG not being one of the rebel 12.
European football’s governing body have previously investigated the Parisians over breaches of Financial Fair Play (FFP), but Al-Khelaifi now wants to be the man at the forefront of their club thinking.
Ahead of the World Cup, PSG – a club owned by a country – are being used as the vehicle to drive interest in football, make money from it and hide a few other things along the way.
Messi helps massively with that.
City’s owners have been at this a little bit longer, which probably explains why their success has been a bit more sustained and impressive.
In 13 years of Abu Dhabi ownership City have won five top-flight titles, three of which have been under Guardiola. The club had won two in their entire history prior to that.
FA Cups and League Cups (a competition they dominate) have come too, but that European crown continues to elude them, and it has now got to the point where you sense that one of the main reasons they want to win the Champions League is purely out of spite.
City and UEFA just don’t get on, and that has only escalated through FFP investigations and now Al-Khelaifi’s position.
The club were of course found guilty of “serious breaches” surrounding sponsorship deals in 2020, only for a two-year European ban to be dropped.
The owners have managed to develop a strong anti-UEFA feeling among the fanbase, and although they often don’t like to think of themselves as rubbing shoulders with the ‘establishment’ clubs, a desire to fatally damage UEFA was clearly there in the Super League hope.
But if they could pip PSG to UEFA’s top prize – something they’d have thought they were about to do when they beat them in the semi-finals last season – would it all be worth it?
For all their opposing views, Qatar and the UAE have clearly agreed on one thing.
Both states overwhelmingly agree to you can buy favour through football, and ever since the Qatari sovereign wealth fund bought PSG in 2011 – three years after the Abu Dhabi United group agreed to buy City – these clubs have appeared to be on a collision course.
Vast sums of money have been poured into them, and some of the world’s best players and managers have arrived.
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It isn’t hard to imagine that, under a slightly different set of circumstances or timing, or with a different contact here or answered phone call there, Messi and Guardiola could each be on the other side this week. Or both on the same one. Either one.
Both men, like so many others in football, have been attracted by the riches on offer and possibilities of success with these two Gulf state Goliaths, and it is their similarities in many senses which make their differences all the more compelling.
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On the pitch, the unwanted similarity of failing to win the Champions League remains, with City having blown their latest and best chance in last season’s final against Chelsea.
This group stage game won’t determine the most likely winner of the competition this time around, with both still expected to progress despite PSG dropping points to Club Brugge last time out, but it will be the latest chapter of a Middle Eastern feud which has an outpost on a Champions League pitch.
Messi and Guardiola must never have thought they’d be part of such a thing, but the world will be watching.