As the glorious past fades, Lionel Messi’s Barcelona future looks more uncertain

With Atlético moving clear at the top it could be another trophyless season for the great one

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi leaves the pitch after the Copa del Rey loss to Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi leaves the pitch after the Copa del Rey loss to Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

 

When the ball was laid back to him, the referee was close by and, wearing a luminous yellow shirt and socks, could have been a distraction to someone less scientific about their art. There were also four Real Betis players in green entering his peripheral vision and keen to stay there. Their task was obvious – to stop whatever it was that Lionel Messi was up to next. To his credit, one of the four got somewhere approaching near to this.

But not near enough. The trouble for the Betis four, and it’s always been the trouble with Messi, is that he had already completed his 360-degree audit of his surroundings on the edge of the box. He had moved on. He already knew where his next pass was going even before the ball had reached his left foot. It was another issue for the Betis four. They were playing the game in the present tense.

And so it came to pass. Messi did not bother to stop the ball, of course not. No, making the technically difficult look technically simple, Messi snapped a first-time through-ball of such precision and wit, the opposition were instantly travelling in the wrong direction. Jock Stein said that sometimes the only way to respond to the audacious brilliance of Jimmy Johnstone was to laugh out loud. Here was another one of those moments.

The Betis four weren’t laughing, though. Maybe they’d had their breath taken away. And now Jordi Alba was suddenly behind them, crying freedom, supplying a cross which Antoine Griezmann did his best to miss but somehow scraped in via a deflection. It was an ugly goal; it was a beautiful creation.

It made the scoreline 2-1 to Barcelona. They had been 1-0 down. Messi was on the bench. Barcelona are third in La Liga behind the two Madrid clubs and defeat in Seville would have left them fourth. So 12 minutes after half-time on went Messi. Within three minutes he had scored a crisp equaliser of which we have become blasé. Then this - a pass from another time zone.

Superpowers

It was an example of why the Sevilla president once called Messi “extra-terrestrial”, why Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli called Messi “Batman”.

Our need to attribute superpowers to Messi is understandable. Yet he does not fly, he is not invisible. In fact, he walks a lot in games, taking it all in like an architect surveying a landscape.

And he never hides. If anything, he is the Visible Man, always available in a tight corner to help out a colleague. When Manchester United met Barcelona in the Champions League two seasons ago Marcus Rashford said he and Jesse Lingard spent the first leg half-time talking about Messi. Rashford was perplexed. He could not quite understand what was going on. “He doesn’t move, but he’s everywhere.” Rashford said of Messi.

It’s a piercing pitch-level analysis. The Betis four would concur. That slice of geometric genius last Sunday enabled Barca to prevail, 3-2. But they are eight points behind leaders Atlético, who have a game in hand. It looks hard for Barcelona to win La Liga this season.

Messi celebrates after scoring the equaliser against Real Betis last week. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images
Messi celebrates after scoring the equaliser against Real Betis last week. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

Then on Wednesday, they were back in Seville to face Betis’ rivals, Sevilla. It was the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and Barcelona lost 2-0. Messi played all 90 minutes and was earthly by his celestial standards. There was some criticism of his fouling, an elbow raised. What a bully.

Some smug Barcelona fans consider a 3-0 home win in the second leg a formality, but it’s not. And if La Liga or the Cup is not to be, that leaves the Champions League, a competition Barca have not won since 2015. You feel it would take even more than Messi to win it and so the prospect of a second trophyless season at Camp Nou looms.

The Champions League resumes on Tuesday. Barcelona go to Paris St Germain. Like an arrowed Messi pass, this leads us swiftly into the future. Last week France Football magazine had Messi mocked up in a PSG shirt, the implication clear. It was once unthinkable, the sight of Messi in another club jersey, but since the 8-2 earthquake against Bayern Munich in last season’s quarter final in Catalonia, everything at FC Barcelona has been re-imagined. The institution needs rebuilding.

The 8-2 was in mid-August. In early September came the burofax message that Messi wanted out. “I thought, and was sure, that I was free to leave,” he was to say. The club replied: it would require €700m from either another club or himself to trigger the release clause. Messi stayed, his options for once limited to one.

January 2020 saw Ernesto Valverde lose his job, now Quique Setién lost his, replaced by Ronald Koeman. Messi’s mate, Luis Suárez, left for Atlético. The Camp Nou boardroom looked as if Trump’s oafs had been through it. Debt is at €1.2billion. There are elections in March. More elections.

On the pitch the team lost at home to Real Madrid, away to Atlético and at Cadiz. (Hooray for Michael Robinson). There was the odd upbeat result - 2-0 at Juventus in the group stage. (Juve won 3-0 in the second match). And then a fortnight ago El Mundo published a copy (alleged) of Messi’s contract stating the club had agreed to pay him €555m over four years from 2017.

That it not a wage you take home in a wallet.

Contested terrain

Whereas the relationship between Messi and the club previously centred on the accumulation of glory and its sidekick, cash and the issue of wealth mismanagement now demands concentration. Messi has become part of a contested terrain. Can Barcelona afford to keep him; can they afford to let him go? What about the wealth of memories?

Where will Messi be this time next year? In red, white and blue in Paris? PSG have the finances to pay him a stratospheric salary and you can imagine Messi might enjoy himself alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. Marketing would like the MNM acronym, and the music.

PSG’s Ander Herrera cast doubt this week on the possibility: “I don’t know how Financial Fair Play works, but I don’t think so.” And there are problems involving Qatar’s football politics.

So maybe Messi will move elsewhere - America? Manchester? He is 33, not 43. He has not run himself to a standstill. He could be great for another five years. But it appears those years will not be at Camp Nou. These could be Lionel Messi’s last 20 or so matches for Barcelona. Someone tell Betis.

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