Messi's form gives Nice defenders reason to fear PSG trip

(AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

By JEROME PUGMIRE

AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) Nice's defenders must be hoping their former coach Christophe Galtier is kind enough to rest Lionel Messi for Saturday's game at Paris Saint-Germain.

Messi's two goals for Argentina against Jamaica on Wednesday - a typical solo goal followed by a free kick - made it nine goals in his past three games for the national team, taking his international tally to 90.

So far this season Messi has four goals and a league-high seven assists for league leader PSG and his partnership with Neymar is looking much like their Barcelona days from 2013-17.

"We have known each other for a long time, by heart, since Barcelona," Messi told sports channel TUDN in an interview this week. "We are happy to be together. I love playing with him."

With Messi serving up scoring chances galore thanks to his rare vision of the game and exquisite passing, it is perhaps no surprise that Neymar is leading the league with eight goals and that France star Kylian Mbappe is next with seven.

None of which is good news for a Nice side languishing in 13th place; weakened during the offseason by the sale of key forward Amine Gouiri to Rennes and by Galtier's departure to PSG after Mauricio Pochettino was fired. A rash of late summer signings seemed like a quick fix and created an unbalance to the side that Nice coach Lucien Favre has yet to resolve.

Losing Galtier after just one season in charge was a big blow.

His arrival at PSG surprised some observers, as it marked a significant shift away from the club's habit of chasing big-name, fan-pleasing coaches. Galtier's credentials were etched in fact rather than any illustrious reputation. After all, he is a three-time French league manager of the year.

He knocked PSG off its perch when he led Lille to the league title against the odds in 2021, before joining Nice and sending PSG out of the French Cup in Paris. In a combined five games as Lille and Nice coach, Galtier's sides were unbeaten against PSG without conceding a goal. A remarkable statistic considering the firepower PSG has, and proof of Galtier's shrewd tactical sense.

The fact Galtier's made such a fine start to this campaign, with seven wins and a draw, is also because he knew just how to eliminate the same PSG weaknesses he had exploited.

"I worked a lot on PSG's last season and previous seasons. I also had a lot of my own analysis on PSG," Galtier said. "I worked to find the best system possible to really bring out the incredible qualities of the players."

That has certainly worked with Messi and also with Neymar, who is fitter, leaner and hungrier than for many years.

When Galtier arrived, he said in his first press conference that no favors would be given to any players regardless of their perceived status. He has been firm but fair, taking star players off toward the end of games when previous coaches seemed more concerned about protecting fragile egos.

When Neymar was substituted toward the end of the match in Lyon on Sept. 18 he was clearly not happy. But he grit his teeth and did not make a scene. Maybe because he knew Galtier would do the same with Mbappe or Messi.

"I'm very natural and direct with the players in terms of my attitude and behavior," Galtier said. "You can always help a player improve, but you have to make them improve mentally: in terms of what this job demands, in terms of concentration and determination."

PSG has scored 26 goals and conceded only four in eight league games, but the players should not expect a pat on the back from Galtier.

"We still need to be more ruthless given the amount of chances we create ... and limit how many mistakes we make so that our opponents get fewer chances to believe," Galtier said in an interview with PSG's TV channel. "We need more variety without changing our approach. We have our way of playing and our profile of players, but we need to some variety in terms of positioning or bringing the ball out from the back."

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Updated September 29, 2022

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