Lionel Messi is back in supreme form, just in time for the World Cup.
With 12 goals in his last 10 games for his club and his country, the Argentina forward is delivering his best run of performances since joining Paris Saint-Germain after an emotional departure from Barcelona in the offseason of 2021.
The stats speak for themselves: Seven goals in the French league, more than he had in his entire first season at PSG; four goals in four games in the Champions League; nine goals in his last three games for Argentina, including all five in a rout of Estonia in June.
Drifting deeper and away from defenders as his teammates passed the ball around, Messi somehow created space for himself outside the penalty area.
Looking over his shoulder before the ball arrived at his feet, he knew he had time to take one touch then nudge it forward before unleashing a fierce, low drive from 25 meters (yards) into the corner. Messi celebrated with a big fist pump.
It’s not just the sheer weight of goals or even assists — he has a competition-high nine in the French league and three more in the Champions League — that is reviving memories of Messi in his Barcelona prime.
It’s the style he is doing it in. And with a smile on his face, too.
Messi is enjoying his soccer again, having recently acknowledged that last season — his first in France — was “bad” while he adapted to a new club after 21 years at Barcelona and all the emotions that came with leaving his home of two decades.
“I arrived with a different mindset,” Messi said in September about his return to PSG ahead of this season, “more adapted to the club, to the locker room, to the game, to my teammates."
The World Cup certainly focuses the mind. Especially when, as is surely the case with Messi, it’s your last one and it’s the tournament that, to some, could define your legacy.
The 35-year-old Messi is also in a good place with Argentina, the focal point of a well-balanced team assembled by coach Lionel Scaloni that has gone 35 games without defeat. That run takes in a title-winning campaign in last year’s Copa America — Argentina’s first major title in 28 years — and a 3-0 victory over Italy in the Finalissima on June 1.
Messi didn’t score that day against Italy at Wembley Stadium but he ran the game. A few days later, he produced that five-goal showing against Estonia.
It was a sign Messi was back.
Marcus Rashford hasn’t played for England since last year's European Championship final against Italy, when he came on as a late substitute and was one of three players to fail to score in a penalty-shootout loss.
Could his next appearance for his country be at the World Cup?
Rashford is making a late run at the squad after regaining his full fitness and confidence under recently hired manager Erik ten Hag at Manchester United, and scoring in his last two games. His most recent goal was the winner against West Ham in the Premier League on Sunday and it came in front of England coach Gareth Southgate, who was at Old Trafford to watch the match.
After the game, Rashford said he has regained his motivation after struggling last season because of off-the-field reasons.
“Too often last season, I wasn't in the right head space for games,” Rashford said.
Rashford's bid to get back in the England squad might have been helped by an injury to Bukayo Saka, a competitor for one of the spots on the wing on either side of striker Harry Kane. Saka was forced off with an unspecified injury in the first half of Arsenal's 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said Saka received a “bad kick” but remained hopeful of making the World Cup.
Fears that Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer may miss the World Cup with a shoulder injury have been eased by Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann.
The 35-year-old Neuer hasn’t played in any of Bayern’s last six games and also is set to miss Tuesday's match against Inter Milan in the Champions League.
However, Nagelsmann said Neuer “had no issues during and after training” on Monday and is hoping to play against Hertha Berlin in the German league on Saturday.
Neuer is Germany's captain.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press