WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP WATCH: Messi is back in top form ahead of Qatar

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Troyes’ goalkeeper Gauthier Gallon, left, swaps a jersey with PSG’s Lionel Messi at the end of the French League One game between Paris Saint-Germain and Troyes at the Parc des Princes in Paris, France, Saturday 29 October 2022. (Photo AP / Francois Mori)

AP

Lionel Messi is back in great shape, just in time for the World Cup.

With 12 goals in the last 10 games for his club and his country, the Argentina forward presents his best streak since joining Paris Saint-Germain after an emotional departure from Barcelona outside of the 2021 season.

The statistics speak for themselves: seven goals in the French league, more than he had in his entire first season at PSG; four goals in four matches in the Champions League; nine goals in his last three games for Argentina, including all five in June’s game against Estonia.

His last – in PSG’s 4-3 victory over Troyes on Saturday – was simply a classic Messi.

By drifting deeper and away from the defenders as his teammates passed the ball, Messi somehow created space for himself outside the penalty area.

Looking over his shoulder before the ball reached his feet, he knew he had time to tap one touch and then thrust him forward before he shot a fierce, low shot from 25 yards into the corner. Messi celebrated with a great pump of fists.

It’s not just about the weight of goals or even assists – he has nine points in the French league and three more in the Champions League – it is reviving memories of Messi in his qualifying for Barcelona.

That’s the style in which he does it. And with a smile on his face.

Messi is enjoying his football again, recently admitting that last season – his first in France – was “bad” as he adapted to the new club after 21 years at Barcelona and all the thrill of leaving home for two decades.

“I came with a different mindset,” Messi said in September of his return to PSG ahead of this season, “more suited to the club, to the dressing room, to the game, to my teammates.”

The World Cup is sure to focus the mind. Especially when, as is certainly the case with Messi, this is your last one, and a tournament that some believe could define your legacy.

Messi, 35, is also in a good place with Argentina, the focal point of a balanced team built by coach Lionel Scaloni, who went on 35 games unbeaten. This series includes last year’s Copa America winning campaign – Argentina’s first major title in 28 years – and a 3-0 victory over Italy in Finalissima on June 1.

Messi did not score that day against Italy at Wembley Stadium, but led the game. A few days later, he scored five goals against Estonia.

It was a sign that Messi was back.

RASHFORD HOPE

Marcus Rashford has not played for England since last year’s European Championship final against Italy, when he entered as a late substitute and was one of three players to have failed to score in a penalty shootout.

Could his next appearance in his country be at the World Cup?

Rashford is late with the team after regaining full fitness and confidence under recently hired manager Erik Ten Hag at Manchester United and has scored goals in the last two games. His final goal was Sunday’s Premier League win against West Ham, and he scored ahead of England coach Gareth Southgate who watched the game at Old Trafford.

After the game, Rashford said he regained his motivation after struggling last season for reasons off the pitch.

“Too many times last season, I haven’t been in the right place for games,” said Rashford.

Rashford’s attempt to return to the England national team may have been helped by an injury to Bukayo Saki, a player for one of the wing seats on both sides of forward Harry Kane. Saka was forced out due to an undefined injury in the first half of Sunday’s Arsenal 5-0 game against Nottingham Forest.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said Saka got a “bad kick” but still hopes to win the World Cup.

THE RETURN OF NEUER

Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann has allayed fears that German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer may miss the World Cup with a shoulder injury.

Neuer, 35, has not played in any of Bayern’s last six games and will miss Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League game against Inter Milan.

However, Nagelsmann said Neuer “had no problems during and after training” on Monday and hopes to play Hertha Berlin in the German league on Saturday.

Neuer is the captain of Germany.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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