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 Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER

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

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