Love affair with club has soured but Messi
Argentine is at loggerheads with club hierarchy but can still upset the odds and lead ‘weak team’ to victory over Bayern
The last seasons of the greatest player of the era, perhaps of any era, and there is nothing smooth about the relationship between Lionel Messi and his club, which is what makes the denouement to these final years of the maestro at the Nou Camp so fascinating. Messi and Barcelona, this season above all, has been a collision between the club and the player who has come to define their greatest era.
From the fallout from the sacking of Ernesto Valverde in January, to the Covid wage cuts, to the last furious days of the season when Messi’s patience finally broke with his team-mates after defeat by Osasuna. “A weak team,” he would later characterise Barcelona, one who can be beaten, he added, “with enough intensity and enthusiasm”.
Against Bayern Munich tonight that “weak team” face arguably the best side in Europe, a club who have been more successful at reinventing themselves in recent years than Barcelona, for a place in the Champions League semi-finals.
In any event, Barcelona may well be hoping for a miracle from their famous No10. About €200million (£180 million) of transfer investment last summer has not yet yielded the change in fortune anticipated, once again a coach, Quique Setien, is clinging on, and as they have for the best part of 15 years, the club look to Messi to rescue the day. Barcelona’s problems are more fundamental than Messi’s antipathy toward the board. This is a club for whom the Covid crisis has exacerbated huge financial issues, including a €671million total sports wage bill and a transfer spending programme that has taken them to their financial limit.
The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, the subject of Messi’s ire, is effectively a lame duck with one year to run. A stadium refurbishment has been halted. The core of players, including Messi, who have delivered such success will need replacing soon – but with what funds? From Qatar yesterday, the former captain and icon Xavi Hernandez, one of many to turn down the manager’s job in January, said that there was “a lot of external noise around the club, a lot of issues off the pitch”.
In his opinion this was not the time to become the Barcelona manager, although how to weigh that is hard to say. He was unequivocal that Messi should get a new deal to replace the one that expires next summer. “He has earned it,” Xavi said.
It feels implausible that Messi would leave Barcelona at 33, especially when the era of huge transfer investment backed by sovereign
wealth funds in the Premier League, at Paris St-Germain and in China has ebbed somewhat.
He and Barcelona are stuck with one another. No Barcelona president could ever afford not to offer Messi the extension he wanted. As for Messi, he has never really shown an inclination to go anywhere else. In the long term, Xavi is one obvious candidate to manage the last years of the club’s greatest player and try to handle that delicate transition to post-Messi.
He is a friend of the Argentine and the next president will have to repair the club’s relationship with Messi as well as ensure the team he leaves are prepared. Messi, Gerard Pique, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba, who all started against Napoli in the second leg, round-of-16 tie – as well as Sergio Busquets who was suspended – are between 31 and 33. Attempts to replace them have been fraught and expensive, including Philippe Coutinho, whose signing accounted for much of the Neymar fee and, on loan at Bayern, might even feature against his parent club. Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong have not had easy first seasons. Ousmane Dembele is back in a match-day squad for the first time in nine months after recovering from injury.
In the short term, the club must beat Bayern – or at the very least show themselves capable. The nature of Messi’s pre-eminence means that a Bayern victory is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite their superior current form.
Barcelona have not just been about the glory of Messi, but also accommodating a once-in-a-generation talent, of challenging and placating him in equal measure – and paying him. And now imagining a future without him, although not quite yet.
For now Messi
In the second leg against Liverpool last year, Barcelona were physically bullied. Bayern have the stronger, faster side – can they use that power to their advantage? Lewandowski on the charge It says plenty about Robert Lewandowski’s form that some believe he may have overtaken Messi this season. The Bayern striker has 12 goals in his past eight matches. Bayern’s physical dominance