It turns out PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino was in the right after all.
Superstar Lionel Messi had a terse exchange with his head coach after he was subbed out with 15 minutes to go in a Ligue 1 match against Lyon that was tied 1-1, but the player was clearly showing signs that he had picked up an injury.
The moment When Messi got the blow on his knee while running at full pace 😳#Messi #PSGpic.twitter.com/VWcq7Q50Pd
In the 72nd minute, cameras showed Messi flexing his left knee as if it were giving him problems just moments before the substitution. But those same cameras also showed him flashing a thumbs-up signal in the direction of the bench, indicating that he’d be just fine.
Those scenes led to Pochettino making one of the most talked-about moves of PSG’s season, yanking Messi in the 76th minute of the Sept. 19 match. Achraf Hakimi entered in his place, but Messi wasn’t exactly on board with it.
MORE: How PSG and Messi fared against Lyon in Ligue 1
With all eyes on the newly acquired star in his first match at his new home stadium, the Parc des Princes, he clearly didn’t want to leave the field with the game on the line. But his coach had other concerns. Still, Messi’s reaction led to a media firestorm that turned out to be totally unnecessary given the injury was real.
Messi’s exchange with his coach was the spark that lit the controversy. It wasn’t your typical sub and his teammates on the bench seemed to pick up on it.
When social media got hold of the video and images, the sequence of events quickly spread:
Messi qui met un VENT titanesque à Pochettino… #PSGOL pic.twitter.com/zWatUMPxq1
Pochettino in big trouble… pic.twitter.com/M9m6OuVtS7
“These are decisions one has to make for the team,” Pochettino told media postgame, according to a translation of his comments from French. “Everybody knows we have great players, but one has to make choices. Sometimes decisions are positive or not, but that’s why you have a manager: to make decisions. You can agree with [a decision] or not. I asked [Messi] how he was and he said to me that he was OK, no problems.
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“Everybody knows that Messi is a great player. There are five subs (available) and it’s obvious that players never like to come off the field. One has to make decisions. I’m on the bench to make decisions. His reaction? Fine, no worries.”
Although Pochettino’s immediate postgame comments didn’t address the knee injury, in his Tuesday press conference he made it clear that it was all about the left knee. The club confirmed that an MRI picked up a bone bruise and more follow-up tests will be required, forcing him to miss the midweek Ligue 1 match at Metz.
“On the sidelines we observe the players and we are seeing what’s happening during the game. We saw that Leo was checking himself and checking his knee and making some movements. And we saw him take a shot,” Pochettino said in the lead-up to the match against FC Metz. “With all the info that we had, we made the decision to make a change. That’s the situation.
“The priority is always what’s best for the player,” he continued. “With the info we had, we thought the best thing for him after 75 minutes was to leave the field. Obviously, a champion and all the big champions always want to stay on the field. That’s understandable. I’m not surprised [at the reaction to the substitution]. It’s normal that these things happen.”
The 34-year-old Messi is in his first season with PSG after signing with the club on Aug. 10. He made his debut coming off the bench on Aug. 29 against Stade de Reims and made his first start in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday in Belgium against Club Brugge. The match against Lyon was his first start in Ligue 1 in front of his home crowd and he clearly wanted to leave a good impression.
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But the substitution also probably caught Messi off guard because he rarely gets subbed out. According to stats compiled by Transfermarkt, he has been subbed out of matches just four times since the 2017-18 campaign and 71 times across his 804 career appearances for Barcelona and PSG in all competitions (8.8 percent of his matches).
According to one Spanish outlet, the last time Messi came off the field in a non-injury substitution was in March 2010:
🗓️🇫🇷 El 31/03/2010 fue la última vez que cambiaron a Messi sin estar lesionado y con un empate
🔙 Fue un Arsenal 2 – Barça 2 pic.twitter.com/urqyyzdtku
Combine Messi’s reaction with the pressure he’s under to deliver, the rarity of the substitution and Pochettino’s postgame comments, and there are plenty of good reasons as to why it made world headlines:
It’s well documented that Messi wants to play every minute of every game he features in. Taking him off like this is just a silly move from Poch. pic.twitter.com/YRNhEHMQHS
🥶 #PSGOL pic.twitter.com/KOn9HIKk6r
📸 – Hakimi replaces Messi who is not happy with Pochettino’s decision. pic.twitter.com/4DmGZGAEYA
I’m Happy Poch subbed Messi off. Cuz now we can really see ppls Delusional Reactions
L’incompréhension de Messi à sa sortie du terrain contre l’OL à la 76′ par Pochettino https://t.co/OfqlAqHRzf #PSGOL pic.twitter.com/EKKeswc4TA
📸 Messi n’avait pas l’air satisfait du tout de devoir céder sa place à la 76e minute… pic.twitter.com/u99JZLk6iP