Lionel Messi admitted in December he could soon retire but Barcelona’s frenzied attempts to make the most of his final years appear to be having the opposite effect.
As Athletic Bilbao’s players celebrated Inaki Williams’ 94th-minute winner at San Mames on Thursday night, Messi stood still in the centre circle, hands on his hips and staring down at the ground in front.
He had missed a chance to win it, his shot saved by Unai Simon, just moments before Williams’ flicked header crept inside the post to send Barca out of the Copa del Rey before the semi-finals for the first time in 10 years.
Messi has been the inspiration and saviour of this Barcelona team, his fingerprints on their string of La Liga titles more than anyone else’s.
But as Bilbao proved, when Messi misses, Barca are there to be hit, their insecurities knew and ready to be exposed.
The political turmoil now engulfing the club stems in part from desperation, not to waste Messi’s final years or at least to be seen to be trying to make the best of them.
He will be 33 in June and said at the Ballon d’Or presentation retirement was “approaching” but a sense of time running out haa long-lingered at Camp Nou.
When Messi won the Champions League in 2015, aged 27, the assumption was there would be more but instead there has been an only disappointment, three quarter-finals and one semi-final, the last two tournaments ending in capitulation.
The fear of a repeat and another year squandered was instrumental in the decision to sack Ernesto Valverde last month, even if players insisted losses to Roma and Liverpool were not down to their coach.
After the clumsy appointment of Quique Setien, in which Xavi Hernandez was approached but not persuaded, and then a botched January transfer window, when strikers were targeted but not signed, frustration grew.
In an interview with Diario Sport on Tuesday, the club’s sporting director Eric Abidal then called out Xavi, who remains close to many in the dressing room, and shifted responsibility onto the players.
– Alba speaks out –
As the most powerful among them, Messi was implicated most.
He hit back, insisting “everyone should take responsibility for their actions” and that not naming names “tarnished all the players”.
Jordi Alba joined in the rebuke on Thursday night. “Those facing the music are the players and the coaching staff,” he said. “Enough shit is thrown at us from the outside, we don’t have to throw it at ourselves from within.”
In the middle of it all, Setien is trying to usher in a new style of play mid-season, more in-keeping with the club’s DNA and better suited to Messi.
Setien said on Wednesday his “obligation” was to focus on football but that has been a concern as well, two defeats in his opening six games leaving Barcelona out of the cup and three points behind in the league.
A clause in Messi’s contract means he could leave for free at the end of the season but the situation is likely to need to deteriorate further for that to become a realistic possibility.
No club in Europe can offer guaranteed success in the Champions League and Messi said in October he was against uprooting his family and three children from the city he has called home for close to two decades.
But lurking over the next month is a Champions League tie against Napoli and the Clasico against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu when failure would be harder to swallow.
First, Barca plays away at Real Betis on Sunday before two home games against Getafe and Eibar could offer a chance to reset.
If they falter, Real Madrid look primed to capitalise even if they were jolted by cup defeat too on Thursday in a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad. Madrid play away on Sunday at Osasuna.
Alaves v Eibar (2000)
Levante v Leganes (1200), Getafe v Valencia (1500), Real Valladolid v Villarreal (1730), Atletico Madrid v Granada (2000)
Espanyol v Mallorca (1100), Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao (1300), Osasuna v Real Madrid (1500), Celta Vigo v Sevilla (1730), Real Betis v Barcelona (2000).