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When the shattered players of Barcelona walked off after being unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League quarter-final by Bayern Munich on 14 August, Lionel Messi stayed on the pitch of the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. His head in his hand, the greatest footballer of the modern era didn’t just look dejected, he looked humiliated. He looked fed up.

And well he might, because, at 33, Messi’s chances of adding to the four Champions League titles he has won with Barcelona is probably gone. The Catalan club last won European Cup under Luis Enrique in the 2014-15 season, the year of their historic second treble. The first one had come in the 2008-09 season—Pep Guardiola’s first season as manager—when Barcelona revolutionized football with their brand of thrilling possession football, that became famous the world over as ‘tiki-taka’. The star of that show was a 21-year-old Lionel Messi. It seems fitting, then, that it was Messi who stood with his head in his hand in the middle of the ruins of the Barcelona era in Lisbon.

In the wake of the mauling by Bayern Munich, Barcelona’s manager Quique Setién was duly sacked on 17 August. The director of football, Eric Abidal followed Setién out the door on 18 August. Setién was only appointed as manager on 13 January after previous coach Ernesto Valverde was sacked with Barcelona leading the La Liga table. It seems likely that Barcelona will turn to former player and current Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman as their new manager. Koeman flew to Barcelona on the 18th and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu told Barcelona's in-house TV channel that the Dutchman will take over "if nothing goes awry".

Between 2008 and 2015, every football side in the world wanted to play like Barcelona. Their high-pressing, quick-passing football was an aesthetic Holy Grail that seemed beyond most teams. The sad lot that capitulated to the high-pressing, quick passing football of Bayern Munich on 14 August were a zombified version of the mighty Barcelona. Over the past five seasons, the Catalan club have been slowly drifting away from the football principles that had made them the top team in the world, and the dislocation was complete in Lisbon. The most damning outcome of this drift is that they are now a team that is entirely dependent on Messi, and have been so for a while.

Ronald Koeman arrives at Barcelona Airport. The Catalan club are expected to announce Koeman as their next manager. (Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea)
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Ronald Koeman arrives at Barcelona Airport. The Catalan club are expected to announce Koeman as their next manager. (Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea) (REUTERS)

2019-20 has been a disastrous year for the team, one in which they sacked two managers and came second in the La Liga. This is the club’s first trophy-less season since 2013-14. Back then, it was disappointing, though not disastrous. In the summer of 2014, Barcelona added midfielder Ivan Rakitić, and striker Luis Suarez. The latter slotted into the middle of a deadly trident featuring Messi and Neymar, and Barcelona morphed into a more direct attacking team and ushered in a few more years of league dominance, along with the 2015 Champions League win. Equally importantly that season, alongside Messi, the core group of defenders Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba, and midfielder Sergio Busqets were all approaching their primes. There was much to look forward to. This season, the club have gone stale, and Messi’s 31 goals in all competitions for the club only make it glaringly clear that the present team’s sole tactic is to give the ball to Messi and hope that he creates his magic.

Barcelona fans celebrate with cutouts of Suarez, Neymar and Messi on the eve of the 2015 Champions League final in 2015. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Barcelona fans celebrate with cutouts of Suarez, Neymar and Messi on the eve of the 2015 Champions League final in 2015. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As the Argentine national team have realized over the past decade and a half, this isn’t a tactic that wins you any competitions. Fittingly, then, each of the teams that spectacularly defeated Barcelona in the knockout stages of the past three seasons in the Champions League are prime examples of clubs which place team play over any star fixation. In the 2017-2018 Champions League quarter-final second leg against Roma, Barcelona capitulated to a 3-0 defeat, going out of the tournament on away goals. In the 2018-19 semi-final, Liverpool overturned a 3-0 first leg deficit by winning 4-0 in the return leg. And in this year’s covid-truncated tournament, along came Bayern Munich and the 8-2 drubbing. In each of these three occasions, apart from the attacking verve and energy of Barcelona’s opponents, what stood out were the listless performances from Messi. He’s allowed to have off-days, even on the biggest of stages, but the margin for error for his team decreases radically if he doesn’t perform. Barcelona have no other means to attack other than via Messi. If Messi fails, Barcelona fail spectacularly.

As has been noted by football watchers over the past few days, Barcelona’s stagnation stems from hubris and ineptitude at the highest levels of management, starting with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. This has been most obvious in the club’s transfer strategy. The club were forced to sell Neymar in 2017 after the Brazilian tired of playing second fiddle to Messi. Since then, Barcelona have spent €385 million on Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann. All three prefer the number 10 role, currently occupied by Messi. Barcelona loaned out Coutinho to Bayern, and he went on to set up one goal and score two in the 8-2 shellacking. Dembélé was an unused substitute, and Griezmann only came on in the second half with Bayern already 4-1 up. Six players in Barcelona’s first team—Piqué, Busqets, Alba, Rakitić, Suarez and defender Arturo Vidal—are over thirty. Each of them cut painfully static figures as Bayern passed their way through Barcelona’s midfield and defence at will. Clearly, the Catalan club’s reliance on Messi has prevented the club from refreshing an aging squad and has seriously jeopardized the balance of the squad.

Nor is Messi happy, for all the indulgence the club have shown. He’s been fixated on winning the Champions League for years now, and feels that the club are not matching his ambition. Messi's contract expires next year, and there are reports that Messi wants out, and if that were the case, it wouldn’t actually be such a bad idea. That is, only if Barcelona use the opportunity to rebuild smartly. Bartomeu has said that most of the older players will be moved on with "honourable exits", but insisted that Messi will be a "cornerstone" of Koeman's rebuild.

Barcelona certainly can’t spend their way out of trouble, because the economic devastation of covid-19 has affected the finances of even the world’s super clubs. Money is in short supply for a club that have spent nearly €1 billion on 29 signings since 2015. All Barcelona can do is to save on the astronomical wages paid to the veteran players. Ronald Koeman has a major task on his hands, with or without Messi. And while it proceeds, it is very likely that Barcelona will not be reaching Champions League semi-finals for quite a few seasons to come.

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