Champions League: Lionel Messi missing PSG’s Leipzig trip highlights why building chemistry can be so hard

Paris Saint-Germain are away at RB Leipzig in UEFA Champions League Group A on Wednesday on Paramount+ and will once again boast a star-studded attack in Germany with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria all available to head coach Mauricio Pochettino.

There is, however, a fairly important name missing from that list. Lionel Messi is out with a hamstring and knee complaint and he’s not alone. The influential Marco Verratti is also sidelined which means that the French giants are still unable to field what could be considered the strongest starting XI possible. In fact, their strongest possible starting XI remains somewhat of a mystery given how little time Pochettino has had to select from his entire menu of options. That’s further complicated by just how little time this deep roster of talented players has spent together.

“I have to get to know everyone,” said summer signing Gini Wijnaldum pre-match as he also struggles to bed in. “They are all new to me. I have not even played with everyone yet. We are adapting to a new coach and style of play. The coach wants us to rotate in our positions. I need to get used to that. For five years (with Liverpool), it was a bit easier.”

Di Maria’s return from his ban means that he is available for the first time this Champions League edition having sat out Club Brugge away and then Manchester City as well as Leipzig at home, and while it’s good to have the Argentina international available to return to the pitch that optimism is tempered by his compatriot’s absence and Verratti’s. At some point to get the most out of this team Pochettino will probably need the option to pick the starting XI he wants, not just rely on whichever eleven players are healthiest.

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Pochettino has only been able to align Messi, Neymar and Mbappe in Di Marias’ absence against Brugge and City and although the latter fixture was a 2-0 home win with the legendary Argentine getting off the mark, the attack has been far from convincing thus far.

“As a coach, you want to improve,” said the 49-year-old ahead of the game. “That is a phase we are currently in. Gini spoke about time to adapt to new teammates and staff. We are in the middle of that and satisfied with results. We have a project with ideas. We know how to develop them. I do not want to dwell further on how to build a team. We are working on it. The philosophy is clear, though.”

In fact, Messi is the most prolific PSG attacker in Europe with three goals while Mbappe has just the one along with Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye while Neymar is yet to get off the mark on the continental stage and missed the last meeting with RBL.

The same types of issues are plaguing Pochettino’s midfield. It is no coincidence that Verratti was present for the wins over City and Leipzig which means that Les Parisiens could find it similarly difficult to Brugge away in terms of linking with the attack even though Mbappe and Neymar are no strangers to playing alongside Di Maria.

And Pochettino is quick to praise the players he does have available. “Angel brings technique and experience on the pitch,” he said of his fellow Argentine. “He brings balance to the game. This balance leads to good collective performances.”

And indeed, it was El Fideo who was key in last Friday’s 2-1 fightback win over Lille OSC at Parc des Princes in Ligue 1 which saw Di Maria and Neymar combine sublimely late on to conjure up a winning goal out of nothing and Pochettino will be hoping for more of the same in Germany.

PSG lost 2-1 at Red Bull Arena almost exactly one year ago with Gueye and Presnel Kimpembe both dismissed in one of Thomas Tuchel’s final European outings with the team so many members of the squad will need no reminder of how difficult this game could get.

Add in the fact that it is pretty much kill or be killed for Jesse Marsch and his Leipzig troops as they struggle to even stay in touch with Brugge in the race for at least a UEFA Europa League berth and the combination of further tinkering on a tricky away day against motivated hosts is far from ideal.

In the end, though, however the opponent, it all comes down to chemistry. “We played together for five years,” said Wijnaldum of the differences between UCL hopefuls PSG and former winners Liverpool. “It took us a long time to win it. Here, it looks a lot like my first season with Liverpool. It is hard to compare as we had been playing together for years there and we barely know each other here.”

What’s left unsaid is that time is something this team might not have. Mbappe’s contract expires at the end of the season, and his well-publicized interest in Real Madrid means that there’s every chance he’s gone should the bedding in process for Messi, Wijnadum and the rest stretch to a second season. And with the knives already out for Pochettino back in France as he continues to struggle to stamp his mark on this squad almost 12 months on from his appointment as Tuchel’s replacement the fact that this teams top players have played vanishingly little time together won’t serve as a acceptable excuse for long.

A win for PSG in Leipzig would not only go a long way towards putting the team into the knockout phase, but it would also further alleviate the pressure on Pochettino and his players. But even if they do walk away from Germany with three points, it’s still yet another match where the team’s superstars won’t all be on the field. At some point the super team experiment might fail not because these players can’t play together, but simply because they will never have the chance.

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