Another Champions League knockout stage sees Barcelona stand only a remote chance of winning the title and Messi has not tasted success since 2015.
The engine of Barcelona’s boat cut out a mile from the shore. Lionel Messi, rowing manfully, without help, could only watch as Real Madrid sailed to their title triumph, overtaking the Catalans during the intense run-in to La Liga’s longest season.
“We didn't expect or want La Liga to end like this but it's a reflection of our year,” said Messi, helplessly, as Barcelona handed over the trophy with a 2-1 defeat by lowly Osasuna at Camp Nou.
“We were inconsistent, weak, teams beat us for intensity and scored goals against us easily. We lost a lot of points we shouldn't have.
“I said a while ago that if we continued as we were, it would be hard to win the Champions League and it's not been enough to win La Liga. And if we don't react and make changes we will not beat Napoli."
Messi was bitter and disappointed, demanding revolution, which is what the club needs. The board, led by president Josep Maria Bartomeu, have failed their Argentine captain, shoving stacks of Euro notes into the ship’s furnace instead of coal.
After Neymar left, the club had €222 million ($263m) burning a hole in their pocket, and instead of giving Messi the team-mates he needed to thrive, they squandered it badly.
Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann cost a combined total of nearly €400m ($475m) but have offered very little to show for it. Coutinho spent the season on loan at Bayern Munich, Dembele on the treatment table and Griezmann looking out of place on the left flank.
The only step in the right direction Barcelona have taken in the transfer market was the arrival of Frenkie de Jong, and his unfortunate injury absence during the run-in was costly.
Bartomeu axed coach Ernesto Valverde with the club top of the league in January, only to see them fall five points behind Real Madrid by the end under Quique Setien. The president hoped the former Betis man would bring fresh ideas and an impulse to a stuttering side but instead Setien proved a Valverde-lite, with less control and less authority over a squad that doesn’t respect him.
The sale of Arthur, one of the club’s promising young midfielders with Barcelona DNA, angered fans, particularly as Miralem Pjanic, who replaces him, is seven years older. Nobody doubts the Bosnian’s talent but, at 30, he is another ageing player in a side which badly needs to be rejuvenated.
Furthermore, his presence might even block the path of La Masia talent Riqui Puig, who is the greenest of green shoots.
It has been a bad 2020 for everyone but especially for Barcelona. They began by courting Xavi Hernandez, who made it clear he won’t be coming back until he can have a fresh start - when this board is gone next summer at the elections.
They were widely criticised for snatching Martin Braithwaite as an emergency signing after the window closed when Dembele broke down again, leaving Leganes to be relegated.
Messi fell out with Eric Abidal after he appeared to blame the players for Valverde’s sacking, and various board members were asked to resign by Bartomeu after internal conflict.
In Messi, Barcelona have the best player who ever lived, but they are not helping him.
They offer noise and distractions instead of ammunition, leaving Messi to do it all himself, rowing against the tide. Any success the club has achieved over the past few years has been despite the administration, rather than because of it.
The forward finished La Liga’s top goalscorer once again, winning the Pichichi trophy for a record seventh time, beating legend Telmo Zarra’s total of six. Messi struck 25 goals in 33 La Liga matches to finish as the division’s best marksman for the fourth year running. He also broke his former teammate Xavi’s La Liga assists record, providing 21 this season, proving just how much of the burden he is shouldering at Barcelona.
If they are to overcome Napoli and go deeper in the tournament it will be riding on his coattails.While it’s no crime to rely on your best player, doing it to this extent exposes laziness and extremely bad planning. They have all but given up on Inter striker Lautaro Martinez, unable to reach a deal for a forward who is exactly the type of player Messi would love working with as Luis Suarez fades.
Puig and Ansu Fati will continue to grow, both players that Messi has linked with well this season, but it is not likely to be enough in the final eight of the Champions League, if they get that far.
One-leg matches are a boon for Barcelona, because their flaws which may be exposed over two games - particularly their lamentable away form - might be brushed under the table by a few strokes of Messi brilliance. That would surprise nobody, but he deserves more.
Messi knows it is all up to him. He wasn’t even allowed to stay angry after the Osasuna game because Barcelona need a united front if they are to have any hope of glory in Lisbon. The five long years since he lifted the trophy in Berlin eat at him.
They should be cutting deeper into those above him, because Messi has done all he can. And more.
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