FOR a few days back in late summer 2020, City fans started to dream that they might be watching Lionel Messi every week.
But maybe it was the Argentine superstar wondering what might have been as he left the Etihad.
There were a few glimpses of the old magic from the PSG new boy during a pulsating second half – notably to create Kylian Mbappe’s opener.
Had he joined this club 15 months ago, what a treat it would have been to see him line up in this special Pep Guardiola team.
But the fact is, City are doing just fine without him – as they showed with a stirring comeback here despite missing key men like Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden.
Having flirted with the English champions regularly over the years, the move so nearly happened in August last year.
Messi was poised to quit Barcelona after a bitter row with former president Josep Bartomeu.
And there – waiting with his arms open – was his old coach Guardiola – hoping for a reunion after eight years apart.
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Sadly for City and all those who wanted to see him in England, Bartomeu put his foot down and forced Messi to stay against his will.
With that, almost certainly, went the chance of the 34-year-old ever playing in the Prem.
Because when he did become available on a free transfer in August, City had moved on – only hours earlier they had signed Jack Grealish for a British record £100 million.
Guardiola wanted an out and out striker like Harry Kane rather than another forward or No10 – not surprisingly he felt he was well stocked in that position.
Not that Messi doesn’t score goals, of course.
In fact has made a habit of doing just that against City in this competition in the past – with seven goals in seven appearances against them.
That included a trademark strike when these two teams met at the Parc des Princes in a memorable clash back in September.
Maybe it would have been worth signing him just to stop him scoring against them.
In the first half here, there was precious little from the fabled front three of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.
City were in complete control and those three barely had a look in.
Messi’s main contribution was some theatrics after a robust challenge from Joao Cancelo out on the flank.
That prompted jeers from the home fans and a reminder that they prefer another Argentine forward around these parts – Sergio Aguero.
Guardiola said on the eve of the game that Messi himself does not know what he is going to do with the ball sometimes – which makes it so difficult to defend against him.
Yet the answer here was not much, the home defence kept him at arm’s length for the whole of the first half.
But Guardiola knows better than anyone that it only takes a few seconds for players of this quality to have an impact – and it arrived soon after the break.
He linked up beautifully with Neymar before sending a deflected cross into the path of Mbappe who scored through the legs of Ederson.
For a few minutes the confidence flowed through Messi and the PSG forwards – but not for long as City wrestled back control and stormed back to win the game.
It means Messi and PSG will have to settle for a runners-up spot – meaning they could be a dangerous last 16 opponent for one of the other English teams.
But he headed back to France last night knowing that his old mate Pep – and City – have moved on.
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