After a disappointing first season in Paris, Lionel Messi is back with his national team ahead of Wednesday's Finalissima between Copa América champion Argentina and Euro 2020 winner Italy at Wembley in London.
The 34-year-old's 2021-22 season ended with PSG lifting a 10th Ligue 1 title, and while Messi served up 14 assists throughout the campaign, he also finished with only six goals — his lowest total since 2005-06 (when he was just making his breakthrough at Barcelona). Messi also struggled with knee and muscle issues at the start of the year before missing three matches in January with Covid-19.
"It left me with after effects," Messi revealed in an interview with TyC Sports. "It left me with after effects in my lungs. I came back and it was like a month and a half without even being able to run because my lungs were affected. I came back before I should have, and it got worse because I went too fast and it ended up setting me back. But I couldn't take it anymore, I wanted to run, to train — I wanted to get going. And in the end, it got worse."
After controversially winning his seventh Ballon d'Or last year despite a strong challenge from Robert Lewandowski, Messi will be far removed from pole position in 2022. However, the Argentine said this year's decision was an obvious one.
"There's no doubt, it's very clear that (Karim) Benzema had a spectacular year and ended up winning the Champions League, being fundamental from the last 16 onwards in every game. I think there's no doubt this year."
The former Barça star, however, wasn't as impressed with Benzema's team as a whole.
"The best team doesn't always win," Messi said about Real's UCL triumph. "Real Madrid, without taking anything away from them, much less because they are the champions of the Champions League and are always there, they weren't the best team in this Champions League and yet they beat them all.
"The Real Madrid (defeat) killed us. I know what Real Madrid are, I've lived it for many years, all my life, up close. And I knew that could happen because out of the blue they score against you and the match changes automatically. If a strange event happens or a goal happens, it changes again and I already knew it could happen, and it happened to us and to all of the teams that they played, and it's not the first time.
"I wanted to win it again and it annoyed me not being able to. It also makes me see that the best team does not always win the Champions League, that the Champions League is about situations. There are specific moments, psychological moments that grab a team, where the slightest mistake leaves you out and the one who is most prepared for those situations ends up winning it or reaching the final."
You can safely assume that Messi viewed both PSG and Manchester City as superior to Real Madrid. City and PSG went head-to-head in the group stage, with Pep Guardiola's side taking top spot and condemning Messi's team to a Round of 16 clash with Los Blancos.
PSG took a 2-0 aggregate lead with less than 30 minutes remaining before, "out of the blue," Benzema scored a 17-minute hat trick to knock Messi and company out. Real then knocked out Chelsea in the quarters and City in the semis in even more dramatic and desperate fashions.
Despite watching Real lift a 14th European title, Messi's mood was probably flying high off last week's revelation that Kylian Mbappé had elected to snub Real Madrid in favor of a three-year extension with PSG.
Messi has been more than happy to let the 23-year-old run the show in Paris, and a lot of that probably comes from the firsthand experience he gathered watching Mbappé torch Argentina at the 2018 World Cup. Messi says Les Bleus are again favorites this year.
"France is an impressive team; four years ago we said they could be candidates and they ended as winners. I think the shock of the European Championship made them stronger, they grew as a team. I think that for this World Cup they are going to be a team that is once again a candidate to become world champions."
As for Argentina, the Copa América champions might not be as talented as Brazil or France, but Messi recognizes this group as one of the most difficult to play against that he's ever been a part of.
"It's a group that plays every game as if it were a final. The coaching staff prepares for every match very well, and they know perfectly well what they are playing for and what they have to do at each moment of the match. Being a young group is not an easy thing but this group is very clear on all of that. It's a national team that can fight against anyone and will make it difficult for any opponent. That doesn't mean we are the leading candidates to be world champions, but it does mean that we will fight against anyone because we are prepared and we are clear about what we want to achieve."
Argentina opens play in World Cup Group C against Saudi Arabia on Nov. 22. That's followed by a clash with Mexico on Nov. 26 and the group finale against Lewandowski's Poland on Nov. 30.