Should Lionel Messi actually leave Barcelona this time? The Champions League could make his decision for him

Last-16 second leg against Napoli isn’t just about the club’s immediate future in the competition – it may well be about Messi’s future at the club, too

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 07 August 2020 12:43 BST
Messi's round of 16 Champions League goals

As irate as Lionel Messi was after Barcelona’s late-season defeat to Osasuna, he very quickly changed demeanour in the dressing room.

The Argentine felt the message was sent. It was now a time for another message, to his team-mates. That was to try and get things together and ensure they win the Champions League. He is “obsessed” with it.

That is the good thing about Messi. He doesn’t dwell. He’s generally focused in the right way. The wonder is how bad it will get if things go wrong and Barca fail, especially if it’s the first match back against Napoli.

It is why that last-16 second leg isn’t just about the club’s immediate future in the competition. It may well be about Messi’s future at the club.

The Argentine does not actively want to leave, but it’s certainly fair to say it is not impossible anymore. Intermediaries are investigating options, coming up with contingency plans. This is why Antonio Conte is getting asked about it at Inter Milan press conferences.

The biggest question, however, is whether Messi should leave.

It is an indictment of Barca that is currently difficult to answer. There may even be a greater argument that he should go rather than stay.

There are a few reasons for that, but the most pointed is that it feels like Barcelona are wasting Messi. They have certainly wasted his prime years.

It is simply incredible that a player as historically great as Messi has not won a Champions League past the age of 27. The time since has instead been filled with heartbreak and burning humiliations. That, naturally, is little fault of his. Messi has stayed at a stunning level throughout all that time. There have been long periods when he has looked better than ever, a more complete player who has perfected more aspects of the game, even if he wasn’t the sonic blur of energy that defined him at his first peak in 2011.

There were points when it felt like Messi won games – and sometimes even leagues – in spite of the dysfunction around him. It’s been magic moment after magic moment, goal after goal, an ever extending personal highlights reel that would easily have enough to distinguish at least 20 other greats together.

A case study is their last Champions League elimination, however. Messi produced a career performance in the first leg against Liverpool, scoring twice to make it 3-0, and then putting it on a plate for Ousmane Dembele to wrap it up at the end. He didn’t. Barca went out, in the most incredible of comebacks.

It’s true that Messi was poor at Anfield, but he also wore the same look he did in the Osasuna game throughout. It was as if he was again registering just how great the problems in this team are.

It is all the more remarkable that this is at a club that has actually attempted to placate him. Messi has used the possibility of departure as leverage before, especially around 2014/15. It’s indicative that’s when he last won the Champions League.

He’s now gone on his longest drought without the trophy. That is mostly because of Barca’s responses.

Barcelona have struggled to get the best out of the likes of Griezmann

Whatever about wasting Messi, they’ve certainly wasted their structural advantages over Real Madrid, and much of Europe.

It isn’t too long since they were the model big club. They had an elite ideology that ran through the whole body, ensuring the team was perfectly in tune, and that the best player in the world was integrated into a system that best suited him.

That is what has most visibly changed. Messi is no longer a seamless part of a system that actually enhances him. He is just one awkwardly fitted part, albeit the biggest and the one everyone else looks to to do something. The dependency on him has only deepened. There are times when it has looked like Barcelona haven’t had much of a system at all.

That is a failure of management. To not be coming up with something that makes the best of a player like Messi should have prompted crisis talks long ago. It should have warranted a restructuring. How could they be wasting a historic opportunity like this?

Instead, a dysfunctional regime has persevered, usually with piecemeal decisions. Academy products haven’t been introduced as easily, although some slack should be cut there, since it’s inevitable most will not be anywhere near the level of 2009 – no matter how good your coaching is.

Beyond that, though, big signings have been mixed with bizarre ones. You could make quite a team out of Barca’s more questionable signings over the last few seasons, from Thomas Vermaelen to Paulinho to Martin Braithwaite. Even now, a side in dire need of pace has signed… Miralem Pjanic.

The teams they have actually put out have been as eyebrow-raising in a different way. It has often felt like Barca have become exactly what Madrid used to be criticised for: a collection of expensive signings rather than a true collective, with signings like Paulinho necessary to plug the gaps in between. It doesn’t speak to elite planning.

Messi’s elite level has ensured they’ve still generally won a two-team title race, but it is galling to the Argentine that his domestic performances have been overshadowed by Real Madrid’s Champions League domination.

This season has finally marked the campaign where Real Madrid have surpassed them, after a season that should set off sirens beyond Messi’s complaints. It represented the nadir of this process.

Barca appointed an ideology manager like Quique Setien for a tactical philosophy, under the delusion that they still implement one, but the squad is no longer built for that. Hence the scarcely believable dilemma regarding Antoine Griezmann.

Messi has shouldered much of burden at Barcelona

Barca signed a star, but one who the manager publicly says doesn’t really fit the 4-3-3 that is supposed to be the club’s staple.

Little wonder Messi might be getting fed up.

But there is a big question over who could buy the Argentine. He is now so valuable, which poses a problem of its own, affecting budget and squad-building.

One agent centrally involved in European football, however, says it wouldn’t be a question at all.

“Clubs would find the money for Messi. Because he is that valuable.” Any of Manchester United, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus… even Real Madrid would be immediately alert.

Those close to the Barca hierarchy, however, feel it is far more likely that Messi’s influence is used to force a regime change, and the early exit of unpopular president Josep Bartomeu.

There’s also that present reality. Regardless of all his understandable complaints, Messi still feels Barca can and should be winning the Champions League now. They have enough talent.

They also have encouragement in other areas, not least from the games after Osasuna. There were some indications that Setien had figured out a formation that gets the best out of Griezmann and the rest of the attack in a three. They suddenly have that bit more confidence.

They also, crucially, have Messi. Sources say he is “ultra-focused on the Champions League this season, more than normal”.

It is possible the will of one player can be enough in such a setting, where it is an intense series of one-off games – like a World Cup. Mere mention of that raises its own questions, but Messi so badly wants that fifth career Champions League.

It’s beyond doubt he would deserve it. Whether Barca deserve it is another big question in all this.

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