Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Lionel Messi has Le Classique on his mind, not El Clasico. Cristiano Ronaldo faces the daunting challenge of trying to out-match Mohamed Salah, arguably the best forward in the world at this moment.

This Sunday is one of those remarkable days in European football, with Messi and PSG heading to Marseille for a Velodrome battle, while Ronaldo and Manchester United tackle Liverpool.

Sunday also sees Barcelona and Real Madrid clash at Camp Nou, in LaLiga's first Clasico since Messi followed Ronaldo by bidding Spain farewell.

It is one of those quietly momentous moments in sport. The recent US Open tennis tournament happened without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and now a Clasico in Spain's post Messi and Ronaldo era is upon us.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looked at the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on world football's biggest club game.

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

For the duration of Ronaldo's nine-year stint with Madrid, neither he nor Messi missed a Clasico in LaLiga. Both started 17 games and appeared as a substitute once each.

And the raw facts tell us Messi had far more to celebrate in the league series, with Barcelona winning 10 times and Madrid notching just four victories, with four games drawn, an aggregate scoreline of 39-23 going in the Blaugrana's favour.

Madrid had an average of 14.1 shots per game to 13.0 by Barcelona, but the capital side could not make that slight advantage count in the overall reckoning.

Taking all competitions into account, Madrid's overall Clasico record in the Ronaldo era perked up slightly (W10 D8 L14). They had two Copa del Rey final wins over Barcelona in this time, with Jose Mourinho's side snatching a 1-0 win thanks to Ronaldo's extra-time header in 2011. Ronaldo was then absent through injury for the 2014 final, Madrid winning 2-1 after a late golazo from Gareth Bale.

A Champions League semi-final success for Barcelona in 2011, however, was a sweet knockout blow, delivered after a swift double jab from Messi, his double in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu being the telling contribution. Messi's goals that night, from a personal expected goals (xG) total of 0.8, were a blow from which Ronaldo and Madrid could not recover in the second leg at Camp Nou. Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final, Messi scoring the second goal and being named man of the match.

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

Messi hit an all-time record of 474 goals in LaLiga and Ronaldo grabbed a sensational 311 in nine seasons, but who saved their best finishing form for El Clasico?

The data tells us Messi wins this one, with both players deadlier away from home during their head-to-head rivalry.

Ronaldo hit six goals in nine LaLiga games at Camp Nou, but he only managed three at the Bernabeu against Barca, and they were all penalties. In Madrid's home league tussles with Barcelona, Ronaldo's shot conversion rate was just 6.4 per cent, but it would have been 0.0 per cent without those spot-kicks. The 6.4 per cent conversion rate ranked, of all the fixtures in which he scored in LaLiga, as Ronaldo's fourth worst.

Messi, during that same 2009-18 period, grabbed nine goals in nine league games at the Santiago Bernabeu, four of them penalties, and also scored three in nine home games against Madrid, a free-kick and two from open play. His shot conversion rate of 11.1 per cent at home was balanced out nicely by a sharp-shooting 27.3 per cent away to Los Blancos.

Six assists from Messi to just one from Ronaldo in the nine-season rivalry further underlined the Argentine forward's upper hand in these games.

Across his entire Barcelona career, which spanned 17 years at first-team level, Messi scored 18 LaLiga goals in Clasico battles.

 

What more can we learn from the Leo v CR7 LaLiga years?

Madrid targeted Messi, or at least the numbers suggest they tried to stop him through fair means or foul, albeit with limited success.

He was fouled 30 times at Camp Nou and 26 times at the Bernabeu during Clasico league games. No LaLiga opponent fouled Messi more than that combined total of 56 during the nine-year spell of the Ronaldo rivalry (Atletico Madrid - 47, Espanyol - 46).

Madrid conceded an average of 18.2 fouls per Clasico during that era, and won 12.6, and such margins can be significant.

Barcelona had a string of pass masters in their ranks, with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets bossing the midfield for much of this vaunted period, and in the LaLiga Clasico games their precision was noticeable.

Passing accuracy of 84.2 per cent in the opposition half during games against Madrid during the Ronaldo years showed where they excelled, and Madrid's 74 per cent mark in this category showed they were often losing possession.

Giving the ball away to any team can spell trouble, and being inaccurate with more than a quarter of passes in the Barcelona half pointed to problems. Only against Rayo Vallecano (71.7 per cent) did Madrid have worse accuracy in that area of the field while Ronaldo was at the club, and that hardly mattered as they won all 10 of their LaLiga games against the side from nearby Vallecas.

Ronaldo's 73.6 per cent passing accuracy against Barcelona was his third worst against any LaLiga opponent, while Messi soared above him with 83.7 per cent, his sixth highest against all league opposition for the seasons from 2009-10 to 2017-18.

The fact he pulled off such consistency while targeting high-tariff manoeuvres in enemy territory further served to underline Messi's dominance of perhaps the greatest LaLiga Clasico head-to-head of them all.

 

Former Paris Saint-Germain boss Laurent Blanc is backing Kylian Mbappe to step up and fill the void after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo hang up their boots.

One of the most exciting talents in the game, the France international has scored 138 goals in 184 appearances for PSG since arriving in 2017, while supplying a further 62 assists.

The World Cup winner's contract is due to expire at the end of the season, with Real Madrid widely expected to sign him on a free transfer.

After 42 goals in 47 appearances last term, Mbappe has been included on the 30-man shortlist for this year's Ballon d'Or – an award won by either Messi or Ronaldo in 11 of the past 12 years.

Now in their mid-30s, the decorated duo have set the standard for well over a decade.

But with their days at the summit of the game arguably numbered, Blanc is confident Mbappe can be one of the players to pick up the baton.

"He is very young but has already achieved a lot, and I think he can still progress," said the former PSG head coach, who guided them to three successive Ligue 1 titles between 2014 to 2016.

"Everyone agrees that he still needs to develop, even if he is already doing so well. 

"I believe that two players have marked the last decades of football: Messi and Ronaldo. 

“Unfortunately, time passes. But I think Kylian is one of the players who can replace them."

 

Mbappe has teamed up with Messi for Mauricio Pochettino's side this season, with the former Barcelona forward joining the French giants on a free transfer in August.

Blanc says the Argentina skipper's arrival not only provided a timely boost for PSG, but to French football as a whole.

"It is vital for the club because it has the best player in the world now," added the 1998 World Cup winner.

"Along with Ronaldo – these two are on another planet. 

"So, it's an excellent thing for the club and for French football. 

"It's a great opportunity for Messi to play in the French championship because it will also allow young players to learn and play by his side."

Paris Saint-Germain will go backwards if Kylian Mbappe leaves for free, according to former midfielder Jerome Rothen. 

Mbappe's contract is due to expire at the end of the season and he has been heavily linked with a free transfer to Real Madrid, whose president Florentino Perez this month said he would have news about the 22-year-old in January. 

The World Cup-winning attacker has scored 138 goals and supplied 62 assists in 184 appearances since joining PSG in 2017, developing into one of the most exciting talents in world football. 

He scored the opening goal in the 3-2 Champions League win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday but blazed a penalty over in second-half stoppage time following a Lionel Messi double.

Still, Rothen believes it is Mbappe, not Messi or Neymar, who is essential to PSG's future.

Their win percentage in all competitions drops by 5.7 per cent to 69.8 per cent when Mbappe does not feature, while their average goals scored slips from 2.7 to 2.3 in his absence. 

"If Mbappe leaves for free, PSG will go backwards I am sure," Rothen said on RMC Sport. 

"It's a chance to have one of the best players in the world. He is the player who best represents Paris Saint-Germain today, the player who often makes the difference and makes you win the big games. 

"It must be shown to Mbappe and his entourage, that the project is around Mbappe, not anyone else. It's not around Lionel Messi or Neymar. 

"Of course, Lionel Messi remains Lionel Messi. Except that today, we see he can disappear for 20 or 30 minutes." 

Mbappe revealed this month that he asked to leave PSG in the close season so they could get money from selling him and find a replacement. 

Messi has a contract at the Parc des Princes until June 2023, with the option for another year, while Neymar's deal runs until 2025. 

Former Argentina head coach Alfio Basile has criticised "messy" Paris Saint-Germain's use of Lionel Messi and says the Ligue 1 side have "a weak defence".

Barcelona's financial difficulties forced Messi to find a new club, eventually joining PSG on a free transfer in August. 

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner got off to a slow start in France, scoring just once in his first four appearances across all competitions and missing several games due to injury.

Basile, who had two spells in charge of Argentina (1991-1994 and 2006-2008), winning two Copa Americas and a FIFA Confederations Cup in a successful first stint, hit out at how PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino was deploying Messi.

"The problem that Messi has is that at PSG, he is playing on the right and with Argentina, he plays everywhere, he makes everyone play." Basile said to SuperMitre.

The former Barca superstar, who won the Copa America with Argentina in July and was named the player of the tournament after registering the most goals and assists, enjoyed a breakthrough evening for his new club as PSG beat RB Leipzig 3-2 on Tuesday, scoring twice.

Basile was scathing in his assessment of the Ligue 1 giants as a team, however, pointing out their defensive organisation as a particular problem.

"PSG have a very weak defence and are very messy," Basile added.

PSG have the seventh-worst expected goals against total in the Champions League so far this season (5.39) but have only conceded three goals, keeping one clean sheet.

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino said his "under construction" team can count on Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe's individual talent after the pair starred in Tuesday's 3-2 Champions League win over RB Leipzig.

Leipzig had six more shots (18-12) as they came from behind to grab a 2-1 lead early in the second half after Mbappe opened the scoring for PSG following a swift counter-attack in the ninth minute of the Group A fixture.

PSG regained control, with Mbappe setting up Messi for a 67th-minute equaliser, before the Argentine superstar coolly dinked home from the spot after the French forward was brought down.

The Parisians had more possession (64.5 per cent) but Pochettino acknowledged too much was in their own half, forcing them to play on the break, rather than force the game.

"It takes time, we are a team under construction," Pochettino said during the news conference. "We had the possession, but we prefer to have it more high on the pitch. But I have also seen good things offensively, which are improving, and which will work better over time.

"Messi and Mbappe? It is difficult to find collective solutions, this is where we can count on players like them. Talents are easily found, there is no time for these automatisms to come back more easily."

Messi became the fourth player to score in their first two home Champions League matches for PSG after Neymar (2017), Alex (2012) and George Weah (1994), while he has now scored 19 goals in 18 games against German opposition in the competition.

Mbappe, who does not turn 23 until December, has already scored 28 Champions League goals – it is the most by any player in the competition before their 23rd birthday, ahead of Messi (25).

Pochettino added that while utilising six-time Ballon d'Or Messi and Mbappe's qualities on the break was effective, he still was aiming to dominate games more in the opposition's half yet needed more time.

"Kylian's qualities are perfect for playing in transition," he told RMC Sport. "When you have Leo, with his passing quality, [Achraf] Hakimi and [Nuno] Mendes on the sides capable of attacking spaces … You can play that way. But we can also progress in the positional game, but that takes time."

PSG, who were also missing Neymar to injury, had 72 per cent possession in the first half, however. Pochettino said his side turned over the ball too much.

Leipzig may have capitalised more with Andre Silva, who equalised in the 28th minute, also hitting the woodwork, while Christopher Nkunku went close on a few occasions before Nordi Mukiele put the German visitors ahead in Paris.

"We have to correct things, we lost too many balls in the first half under the pressure from Leipzig, our midfielders were down," Pochettino said.

"We had trouble connecting with our attackers. In difficult times, we conceded two goals in the counterattack where we had the numerical superiority, we have to improve.

"But we have the satisfaction of having shown character to get back from 2-1."

PSG have been defeated only four times in 44 home matches in the group stages of the Champions League (W34 D6), winning all six of their games against German sides (Bayern Munich on four occasions and Leipzig twice).

Playing with Lionel Messi is "easy" for Kylian Mbappe, who knows Paris Saint-Germain must find a higher level than they did against RB Leipzig on Tuesday.

Messi scored twice to take his tally of Champions League goals to 123 as PSG came out on top 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at Parc des Princes.

While he is yet to find the net in Ligue 1, Messi has now scored three times in UEFA's flagship competition for his new club, taking him level with Mauro Icardi and Neymar for the most goals inside three Champions League appearances for PSG.

With the injured Neymar watching from the stands, Mbappe played a crucial part in both of Messi's goals, first teeing up the 34-year-old to restore parity after Nordi Mukiele made it 2-1 to Leipzig, before winning the penalty from which the Argentine coolly chipped home the winner.

Mbappe opened the scoring in a frantic match, finishing brilliantly in the ninth minute to take his number of direct goal contributions for PSG in the Champions League to 40.

The youngster has already scored 28 goals in the Champions League; the most by any player in the competition before their 23rd birthday, ahead of Messi (25). Mbappe did, however, pull rank over Messi late on to take a second penalty, denying his team-mate the chance of a hat-trick, only to send his effort into the stands.

"We found each other tonight, it was good," Mbappe told RMC Sport when asked about Messi.

"Now, Neymar will come back. We will have to be good together, all three of us. We will need to be efficient. But, it's easy to play with Messi."

While Mbappe and Messi got PSG out of trouble and sent Mauricio Pochettino's side back to the top of Group A, it was another performance largely lacking in control, with Leipzig having 18 attempts in total, eight more than their hosts managed.

Andre Silva, who cancelled out Mbappe's opener, had previously hit the woodwork, while former PSG midfielder Christopher Nkunku also went close on several occasions. 

Though he is revelling in his growing relationship with Messi, Mbappe insisted the trend of performances cannot continue.

"In the league, we may be a bit laborious, but we have nine wins in ten games," he said. "We have to do better, it's true. For the moment, we are not playing well, [but] we are winning. But I think we have to play better to win more calmly."

It was a sentiment echoed by Marquinhos, who was also full of praise for Mbappe's display.

"Paris won, that's the most important thing," he said. "You have to suffer, there is no gift in football. We knew that there would be no easy matches. The main thing is to win, to gain confidence and experience.

"It's great to have a player like [Mbappe]. He's a very important player in the team. He plays great matches. It's very important to have him fresh, with confidence. He helps us on the field, it is very good for us that he is there."

Lionel Messi scored twice in the space of seven minutes as Paris Saint-Germain grabbed a 3-2 victory over RB Leipzig in a thrilling Champions League encounter.

Kylian Mbappe had earlier fired PSG into a ninth-minute lead, yet Andre Silva deservedly pulled Leipzig level in what was another laboured and imbalanced performance from PSG on Tuesday.

Shorn of the injured Neymar, Mauricio Pochettino's team looked set to be punished when Nordi Mukiele scored Leipzig's second to put them ahead just prior to the hour at Parc des Princes.

However, Messi was on hand to stem Leipzig's hopes of a first Champions League win of the campaign with a somewhat fortuitous finish, before the former Barcelona superstar chipped home the winner from the penalty spot.

Mbappe slammed a second penalty high over the bar in stoppage time, though PSG still moved to the top of Group A.

The Champions League group stage reaches the halfway point this week and Tuesday provides another set of tasty fixtures.

Liverpool travel to Atletico Madrid seeking revenge two seasons on from their last-16 exit to Diego Simeone's side in the pick of the games.

Real Madrid and Manchester City are each looking to respond to defeats last time out when they take on Shakhtar Donetsk and Club Brugge respectively.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain host RB Leipzig and two of Europe's great entertainers in Ajax and Borussia Dortmund face off in Amsterdam.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of some key contests.

 

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: Reds face bogey side

Following their last-16 exit to Atletico two seasons ago, Liverpool are winless in four Champions League meetings with the LaLiga champions – only Basel have they faced as many times without winning in Europe's top competition.

The Reds have also lost six of their past seven games on Spanish soil in the tournament since beating Real Madrid in the 2008-09 last 16, though they were victorious at the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham in the 2018-19 final.

Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in that meeting with Spurs and he has more recently scored in each of his past five away games for Liverpool in the Champions League – the longest-such streak by a Reds player in the competition.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Madrid: Will Ancelotti be Los Blancos' lucky omen?

Shakhtar beat Madrid home and away in the group stage last season and could become just the third side to win three in a row against Los Blancos in the competition after Bayern Munich and Juventus.

While Madrid's recent record against the Ukrainian outfit is poor, head coach Carlo Ancelotti has won all four of his previous Champions League games against Shakhtar – only against Bayern (six) and Liverpool (five) has he won more often.

Prior to their shock defeat at the hands of Sheriff last time out, Madrid beat Inter 1-0 at San Siro in their opening Group D contest. However, not since 2014-15 have they won their opening two Champions League away games.

 

Paris Saint-Germain v RB Leipzig: History not on Germans' side

After netting in PSG's win against Manchester City three weeks ago, Messi is looking to join Neymar (2017), Alex (2012) and George Weah (1994) in scoring in his first two home games for the club in the competition.

PSG have a great record against German opponents, having won seven of their eight meetings with Bundesliga clubs on home soil, though the exception in that run was in April this year when Bayern won 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

The Ligue 1 side do not tend to slip up at home in the group stage, losing just one of their past 28 such games – against Manchester United in October 2020 – and netting 2.7 goals per game on average.

Club Brugge v Manchester City: Pep seeking response to Paris pain

Ahead of this first ever meeting with City, Brugge are winless in 12 matches against English opponents in all European competitions since beating Chelsea in the Cup Winners' Cup 26 years ago.

The Belgian champions are unbeaten in their past four home group matches in the Champions League, though, picking up eight points across that run – only once have they gone five in a row without defeat (a run of six that ended in October 2019).

But Pep Guardiola will be confident of City getting their campaign back on track following defeat in Paris, the Catalan coach having lost successive away games in the competition once previously when in charge of Bayern in 2014-15 (against Porto and Barcelona).

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Borussia Dortmund

2 - Dortmund have won their previous two major European matches in the Netherlands, both in the Champions League. Their last defeat on Dutch soil was in the 2002 UEFA Cup final against Feyenoord.

3 - Ajax are aiming to win their opening three games to a Champions League campaign for the first time since 1995-96 under Louis van Gaal, the season in which they last made it all the way to the final.


Besiktas v Sporting CP

4 - Sporting have failed to win a European match on Turkish soil, drawing three times and losing once, with that loss coming against Istanbul Basaksehir in February 2020 in the Europa League. Besiktas, though, have won just once in 11 home Champions League games, beating RB Leipzig 2-0 in September 2017.

3 - Sporting lost their opening two group matches, against Dortmund and Ajax, and are at risk of losing three in a row for the first time in the current group-stage format.


Porto v Milan

6 - Porto have kept a clean sheet in six of their past seven games in the group stage of the Champions League, though they did concede five times in their last outing in the competition against Liverpool.

7 - Including qualifying matches, seven of Milan's eight away matches in UEFA competitions in Portugal have ended as a draw, with their only win coming against Porto in March 1993 courtesy of a Jean-Pierre Papin goal.


Inter v Sheriff

- Inter have failed to score in their previous three home Champions League games (the last two group games in 2020-21 and against Madrid this term). They have never previously gone four major UEFA European home games without scoring.

- Sheriff are looking to become just the third team this century to win their first three games in the Champions League, after Leicester City in 2016-17 and Malaga in 2012-13.

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino has "no doubt" Lionel Messi will continue to perform at the highest level when playing for the Ligue 1 giants.

Messi and PSG will host Group A rivals RB Leipzig on matchday three of the Champions League on Tuesday.

After netting in PSG's win against Manchester City three weeks ago, Messi is looking to join team-mate Neymar (2017), Alex (2012) and George Weah (1994) in scoring in his first two home games for the club in the competition.

As Messi continues to find his feet in the French capital following his blockbuster switch from Barcelona, Pochettino praised the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"Leo [Messi] shines by himself.  He shone in Barcelona, [he] shines with Argentina and shines at PSG," Pochettino told reporters, with PSG level on four points with Club Brugge – a point above City and four clear of winless Leipzig.

"He is absolutely adapted, he has the intelligence and the adaptation ability at the highest level. He is now more relaxed and with the experience of being at the club and in the city a few months he is very happy here.

"We are very happy and we expect that everything goes naturally and him to perform the way he expects and everyone expects. I have no doubt about that."

PSG have a great record against German opponents, having won seven of their eight meetings with Bundesliga clubs on home soil, though the exception in that run was in April this year when Bayern Munich won 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

Champions League runners-up in 2019-20, PSG do not tend to slip up at home in the group stage, losing just one of their past 28 such games – against Manchester United in October 2020 – and netting 2.7 goals per game on average.

Lionel Messi is "very happy" at Paris Saint-Germain despite making a slow start to life in the French capital since his shock move from Barcelona, according to friend and former team-mate Cesc Fabregas.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner signed for Ligue 1 giants PSG in August after Barcelona, the club he had been associated with for 21 years, were unable to fulfil an agreement on a new contract due to financial reasons.

Messi scored a staggering 672 goals and assisted 265 more in 778 appearances across 17 seasons in Barca's first team, but he has so far managed just one goal and zero assists in five games for his new club in what has been a stop-start campaign.

He has had 13 shots during his 370 minutes on the field for PSG, finding the target from four of those.

Monaco midfielder Fabregas has opened up on Messi's surprise departure from Camp Nou two months ago and has refuted previous suggestions that the Argentina international is unsettled in the French capital.

 

"He's very happy. There are a lot of players he knows already and who speak Spanish. He's very happy, of course," Fabregas, who progressed through Barca's La Masia academy and returned to the club for a three-season spell in 2011, told Prime Video Sport.

"I was on holiday with him a week earlier, and he told me he was close to signing for Barcelona and he was due to start training the following week.

"Five days later, he told me it wasn't possible and that the club had told him to leave. I was very sad because I'm his friend and I'm a Barcelona fan. But now, I'm happy to be able to play against him this season."

Messi was not included in PSG's squad for Friday's 2-1 win over Angers, the superstar forward not being considered for selection due to being in World Cup qualifying action for Argentina the previous day.

Kylian Mbappe's contentious late penalty sealed a ninth win in 10 Ligue 1 games for leaders PSG, who return to action on Tuesday with a home match against RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

Is Mohamed Salah the best player in the world? Jamie Carragher has no doubt after the Liverpool forward's stupendous goal at Watford drew immediate comparisons with Lionel Messi. 

Former England striker Gary Lineker compared the wonder strike to a Lionel Messi special after the Egyptian put Jurgen Klopp's Reds 4-0 up at Vicarage Road, on the way to a 5-0 win. 

Salah received the ball on the edge of the Watford penalty area and was surrounded by home defenders, but he showed supreme close control to weave a path beyond Craig Cathcart, Juan Hernandez and Juraj Kucka before whipping a clinical finish into the far corner. 

It was a goal that had the hallmarks of a Messi or Diego Maradona masterpiece, with Salah's astonishing footwork leaving the defenders powerless to stop him extending Liverpool's lead. 

"My, my. Mo has morphed into Messi," Lineker wrote on Twitter. 

The goal means Salah has now scored in each of his past eight games for Liverpool; the longest run of scoring in consecutive appearances for the club since Daniel Sturridge in February 2014, also a run of eight matches. 

Carragher's instant verdict was: "Best player in the world right now." 

The former Liverpool defender's excitement was matched by all-time Reds top scorer Ian Rush, who used an Arabic term of approval to describe Salah's goal. 

"Mashallah @MoSalah The best!" Rush tweeted. 

Alan Shearer, the Premier League's record scorer, described the goal as "brilliant", and Liverpool's own Twitter match commentary enthused about the Salah strike. 

It came two weeks after his majestic goal against Manchester City, with Salah said by some on social media to be putting together his own goal of the season competition. 

The effort was his reward for persistence, with Salah's strike his fifth attempt of the game. It was also his ninth goal in seven games in the Premier League against Watford. 

The flow of goals from Liverpool amounted to dismal news for Watford's new boss, Claudio Ranieri. Roberto Firmino grabbed a hat-trick and Sadio Mane also scored, netting in the Premier League for the 100th time. 

Liverpool tweeted: "Words escape us, but we'll try... Salah shows incredible quick feet to escape the attention of three Watford defenders inside the box, before turning Cathcart and sending a curling effort into the far corner." 

Karim Benzema believes the Clasico is still "the best match that exists in football", even with neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo involved for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Benzema's Madrid visit Barca next week to begin a new era in one of the game's most famous fixtures.

After Ronaldo left the capital for Juventus in 2018 – and later rejoined Manchester United – Messi followed his great rival out of LaLiga this year.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner, who had been a first-team player at Barca since 2004, joined Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer when the Blaugrana could not afford to renew his contract.

In the 21st century, only Diego Forlan (10) has scored more LaLiga goals against Barca than Ronaldo (nine). Messi's 18 Clasico goals are the most of any player against Madrid in that time.

Benzema, leading the league for both goals (nine) and assists (seven) in 2021-22, is the outstanding player among those who remain, but he insists the excitement around the match is undimmed.

"For me, it's still the same. It remains the best match that exists in football," he told ESPN.

"It doesn't matter about the players who are there, who have left or who will join. Real-Barca is historic.

"The names change, but before there was [Zinedine] Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, [Samuel] Eto'o. Real-Barca will always be Real-Barca."

 

Leaders Madrid will undoubtedly be favourites, even in Catalonia. Ahead of the games this week, when Los Blancos are not in action but Valencia visit Camp Nou, Barca are down in ninth.

Benzema is impressively holding the fort as Madrid's main man, but Barca are a little short on quality following Messi's departure amid a dire financial situation.

The Blaugrana's salary cap is only the seventh-highest in the league, a long way behind Madrid's, and doubts remain around Ronald Koeman.

He lost his first two Clasicos last season, becoming the first Barca coach to do so since Joaquim Rife in 1980. Koeman is also three without a win against champions Atletico Madrid, who beat his side before the international break.

But Benzema says: "There's never a good moment to play them. A team like Barca or any top team, they can have a poor game and then bounce back again.

"It's a match that we can't take lightly, even if they haven't played well so far."

Benzema certainly has played well, and he has made the shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

In this calendar year, the France international has 28 goals and 11 assists for Madrid in all competitions. Across the top five leagues, only three players – Robert Lewandowski (46), Erling Haaland (45) and Kylian Mbappe (43) – have recorded more involvements than Benzema's 39.

"It's been a dream since I was young and also a motivation – the Ballon d'Or represents the best players in the world and [it is great] to be on the list," Benzema said.

"If you count who's on there, it's very satisfying. It's always been an objective.

"You could say [I am close]. What I've done for the last three to four years, to continue to perform at a high level.

"When I'm playing, I don't think about the Ballon d'Or. I think about helping the team win, providing a spectacle. The Ballon d'Or comes as a result of that, because it's more of an individual focus, but it's all about the collective."

Lionel Messi should never have been allowed to leave Barcelona for another European club, according to former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The relationship between Messi and Bartomeu reportedly became toxic during the latter's final months in charge at Camp Nou, and Joan Laporta's election win in March 2021 appeared to point to a brighter future for the team.

However, in August there was the bombshell announcement that Messi would be released as the club could not afford to retain him, with their finances having been hit badly during the pandemic.

An agreed contract had to be discarded and Messi joined Paris Saint-Germain, who have no such money worries under their Qatari owners.

There ended Messi's 20-year career at Barcelona, during which he became the pivotal player. Messi departed as the club's record scorer, with the most first-team appearances of any player in Barcelona's history, and against his own wishes, a sobbing superstar waving an unexpected farewell.

"I have always thought that it is essential that he should be with us, not only because he is the best in the world but also because of his economic and institutional contribution," Bartomeu said, in an interview with Mundo Deportivo.

"It is a mistake to let Messi go. He represents much more than a footballer that you fall in love with."

Messi attempted to leave Barcelona after the 2019-20 season, believing an agreement that he should be allowed to depart if he told the club of his intention by May 31 should have been allowed to carry over until the end of August, given the delay in the campaign caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

That was rejected by Barcelona, with Bartomeu fighting to keep Messi with the Catalans.

"He wanted to leave the club, we talked about it and I said no," Bartomeu said. "I have always thought that Messi is very important for our club, also Barca is for him and it would be a serious problem if he left, as I think it has been now.

"I told him that if he wanted to go like Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta, to Qatar, China or the United States, something we understood, we can talk about it and we will do a tribute and a farewell.

"But Messi didn't have a team yet and he wanted to be free. We told him: 'We want Barça to be your last club in Europe. If you want to go to another continent later, no problem. But we want you to continue,' and that was a bit of the story of the summer of 2020. Us telling him that we wanted him to continue and he, that he wanted to leave. But without knowing where. I always asked him where he wanted to go."

Bartomeu frowned on suggestions there had been no strategy for growing the team, which was said to have been a major complaint of the Argentina forward.

He also dismissed any suggestion that players had an overbearing influence, having admitted Messi and Luis Suarez promoted the idea of bringing in Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, before he arrived for an eye-watering fee in January 2018.

Barcelona agreed a deal said to be worth up to £142million for the Brazil midfielder, whose signing has not lived up to expectations.

Asked about player power, Bartomeu told the Spanish newspaper: "In the dressing room they have a power and you have to listen to them. It does not only happen at Barca. 

"You have to take them into account, they know the day to day and during this term we signed many players. Sometimes we have taken their considerations into account and sometimes not."

The October international break has provided an opportunity to reflect on the club season so far, with the campaign starting to settle into some sort of pattern.

Paris Saint-Germain have quickly moved clear at the top of Ligue 1, but there look to be genuine title tussles on the cards in the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A.

However, while there are familiar names involved in each league, that does not mean the same individuals are excelling as in previous seasons.

A close-season that saw two of the sport's greats make moves shook things up a little, giving other emerging stars the opportunity to establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.

Studying the best shooters, creators, dribblers and goalkeepers, Stats Perform takes you through the standout statistical performers of 2021-22 so far.

Hotshot Haaland and luckless Lorenzo

There were familiar faces at the top of the shooting charts last season, as Lionel Messi (196 shots) led the way ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (168). This term, although Ronaldo has hit the ground running, neither rank among the top marksmen.

Kylian Mbappe (35) has had the most attempts, but Erling Haaland is averaging 5.2 per 90. While that is the most among players with 20 total shots or more, it falls short of the 5.8 Messi was mustering last term.

Haaland is certainly making the most of his opportunities, though. From chances worth just 4.77 expected goals (xG), he has produced finishes worth 7.05 expected goals on target (xGOT) – a metric measured after the shot. These efforts have led to seven goals, performing in line with the quality of his finishing.

The Borussia Dortmund man is not outperforming his xG by as much as Karim Benzema, who leads the way in that regard. His nine goals have come from opportunities worth 4.43 xG, although his shots have only accounted for 5.22 xGOT, suggesting poor goalkeeping has also contributed to his success.

Lorenzo Insigne certainly has not encountered any below-par work from opposition keepers. His 27 attempts have been worth 5.5 xG, and he has narrowly surpassed that mark with his xGOT of 5.57. Yet the Napoli captain, third behind Messi and Ronaldo last year with 144 shots, somehow has only two goals.

Just two players in the whole of 2020-21 – Houssem Aouar (seven goals, 10.75 xGOT) and Edin Dzeko (seven goals, 10.58 xGOT) – fell so far short of their xGOT, suggesting Insigne's fortunes must surely change soon.

Benzema benefiting like Kane last year

Bruno Fernandes is one of Europe's best creators and scarcely gets a rest at Manchester United, so it is no surprise to see him figuring high up the rankings for key passes both this season and last. In 2020-21, Fernandes created the second-most chances (95) and the second-most chances from open play (77). This term, he is joint-fifth for total chances created (23).

Eden Hazard is back producing once again, averaging 3.99 key passes per 90 – all from open play. He is third for chances created and first for chances created from open play among those to forge 10 or more opportunities.

But Hazard has only a single assist to his name, not so far as fortunate as Fernandes' team-mate Paul Pogba or his own colleague Benzema.

Pogba has created chances worth just 1.45 expected assists (xA) and Benzema 2.05 xA, yet the pair have seven assists apiece thanks to the fine work of their club-mates. It means Benzema has been involved in 16 goals despite his combined xG and xA making up a mere 6.48. He is a man in top form, but this statistical output does not seem sustainable.

It is Harry Kane's example that Pogba and Benzema are following. His 14 assists led the Premier League last term, but he only actually created chances worth 3.63 xA, far and away the most spectacular disparity as Son Heung-min and Co. boosted Kane's figures.

Messi actually went in the opposite direction, last season creating chances worth 13.37 xA but only being rewarded with nine assists.

Adama dominant with Messi missing

As well as being one of Europe's most prominent shooters and creators, Messi was right at the top for dribbles last term. No player attempted (261) or completed (159) more take-ons. Given Neymar attempted the most dribbles per 90 (11.28) among those with 50 or more attempts, slow starts for two Paris Saint-Germain stars have left a gap in the market.

Unsurprisingly, Adama Traore has stepped into that void. The Wolves winger was next behind Messi for attempts (232) and completions (153) in 2020-21 and now comfortably leads the way (61 and 49). Among those with 20 attempted take-ons or more, Traore is now completing more dribbles per 90 (9.63) than any other player in Europe is even attempting. His success rate is an astonishing 80.33 per cent.

The Spain international has 14 times this season beaten multiple players in the same run and has created six chances immediately after a successful dribble – two more Europe-wide highs.

Traore only ranks joint-second for chances created from all carries, however, his nine trailing Allan Saint-Maximin's 11, with the pair out in front of the rest across various metrics with the ball at their feet.

Oblak off the mark and Keylor kept out

There were two clear outstanding goalkeepers in Europe in 2020-21, as Jan Oblak led the way for goals prevented using expected goals on target data (8.58, having conceded only 25 times excluding own goals) while Keylor Navas had the best save percentage of those to face 50 or more shots on target (80.43). Oblak was second for save percentage (80), with Navas third for goals prevented (8.11).

But both men have slipped below those standards this season.

Oblak has endured a significant wobble, saving only 57.14 per cent of 14 shots and conceding five goals from efforts worth 4.22 xGOT. Navas has a better save percentage of 72.73 but still is not having a positive impact, conceding six from an xGOT of 5.02. He also now looks to have lost his place to Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Going the other way, though, there has been a positive change in fortunes for Aaron Ramsdale, who last year had to make 147 saves – behind only fellow relegated England international Sam Johnstone (166). Since joining Arsenal, Ramsdale has faced just 10 shots on target and saved nine of them, a benchmark save percentage.

Matias Dituro is the standout difference-maker this term, however. Despite conceding 11 times, excluding own goals, since joining Celta Vigo, he has actually prevented 4.05 goals.

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