Paris Saint-Germain’s trip to Rennes on Sunday is set to be the first time their superstar front three of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar have all played together since the World Cup.
Mbappe returned to training on Thursday having been given 10 days off after coming back from Qatar and playing in PSG’s first two games following the tournament.
He jetted off to New York for a break and was nowhere to be seen as Messi made his comeback, and scored, in a 2-0 victory for the Ligue 1 leaders against Angers on Wednesday.
The World Cup was a clear motivating factor in the trio’s outstanding form during the early months of the campaign, and how they play together will be crucial in determining how the remainder of the season goes for PSG.
They are six points clear of Lens before completing the first half of the season in Rennes, but the Champions League is their main objective.
After failing to come top of their group, Christophe Galtier’s side were drawn to play Bayern Munich in the last 16, with the first leg at home set for February 14.
Galtier described the 35-year-old Messi as “relaxed and in great shape physically” after his first match since captaining Argentina to a penalty shoot-out victory over Mbappe’s France in an epic World Cup final last month.
The question now is how much motivation the former Barcelona star has after that career-defining triumph.
PSG are keen to extend his contract in the French capital into a third season and Messi’s biggest goal now will be to win the Champions League for the first time since 2015.
Fuelled by losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick, 2018 world champion Mbappe will be desperate to get his hands on the Champions League trophy for the first time.
Neymar, meanwhile, appears a little like the odd man out -- he left the World Cup in tears as Brazil lost on penalties in the quarter-finals, aware his chance of winning that trophy may have gone forever.
He was then sent off in PSG’s first game post-Qatar against Strasbourg, completing a miserable end to 2022.
But for PSG it is not just about those three.
They look light in defence, where they appear overly reliant on an ageing Sergio Ramos, and short of muscle in midfield, an area where a fragile Marco Verratti is their key player.
Galtier insists they still need time to get back up to speed.
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“We are all just getting used to playing together again and you could see at times that we lacked some of the connections between the players that we had more often before the World Cup,” he said after the midweek game.
Player to watch: Ross Barkley
If the England midfielder was hoping to relaunch his career in France, the move was not working out for the 29-year-old former Everton prodigy as he struggled to make a serious impact in the first three months of the season. Things have improved for him at the start of 2023, however. Barkley scored a brilliant goal against Rennes on January 2 in a 2-1 defeat, and then came off the bench to score twice in Wednesday’s 6-1 thrashing of Montpellier.
The latter game was also the first for Nice since coach Lucien Favre was sacked and replaced by Didier Digard. Barkley will hope to make a greater impression under a new manager in the months ahead with the club owned by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.