It has reached the stage where frankly nobody, not even the most hard-line Cules, could complain if Lionel Messi was preparing to walk away from Barcelona without a transfer fee this summer. It's in his contract that he's allowed to do so. I guess that clause was negotiated for a situation just like the current one and although he's often said that he wants to stay on and conquer at Camp Nou, you'd understand if he were currently changing his mind.
In their past two matches, Barcelona have barely looked competitive. They inched past a third division Ibiza team in the cup and then allowed an initially timid Valencia, stripped of their best player (suspended captain Dani Parejo) and with their second best player (Rodrigo) on the bench, to outperform them so radically that the final score could very easily have been 4-0.
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Los Che have been on an abysmal run of form and, last week, were completely humiliated by relegation-threatened Mallorca. Yet they shredded Barcelona.
Messi turns 33 in June. Time is not on his side. And since November, as I've previously described here, he's been playing as if he's disenchanted or deeply lacking in confidence that Barca are going in the right direction. It's beginning to cost him and his team heavily.
His most radiant moments -- glimpses against Madrid, a hat-trick against Mallorca, the winning goal in Quique Setien's home debut, other strikes against Alaves and Atleti -- have been largely outweighed by him looking sluggish, reacting slowly to a loose ball, making poor choices, being easily robbed and, as was the case in the 30 seconds leading up to Valencia going ahead 1-0, miscontrolling the ball.
Just let's stop for a moment. I fully understand the seriousness of what I'm saying: Messi slow? Messi easy to pickpocket when in possession? Messi miscontrolling the ball? Well, those are the stark, unarguable facts, and have been for nearly two months now. Messi looks like he looked to me when I watched him for the first time ever, playing for Barca B back in 2004: a bit down in the dumps, perhaps a tad sulky and certainly not firing on all cylinders. His then-captain subsequently told me that Messi was in the huff that day, hated being used on the left of a 4-2-3-1 formation and already certain, as were his B team companions, that he should be with the first team. It showed.
Back to the present, as it's showing again today. What's worse still is that even when significantly out of form and occasionally unrecognisable, Messi will often remain Barcelona's most threatening performer.
Now I want to be the first to admit it: the strangely diminished performances we've been witnessing since November and the demolition of Borussia Dortmund might be part physical. Messi suffered a difficult preseason and may only be suffering a physiological dip as a result. That, combined with the absence of his favourite partner, Luis Suarez, might be getting the better of him, but those excuses sure don't seem sufficient explanations to me. For example, while Barcelona were floundering all over the Mestalla pitch on Saturday, Messi was part of the problem, not the solution.
Everyone is entitled to a run of bad form, but Messi is utterly essential to the well-being of this squad and right now, the slump has gone on for far too long to be coincidence. However, please think back to what happened when Arturo Vidal came on 10 minutes after half-time in Valencia.
It was a substitution that Setien could have made 20 minutes into the first half and still not looked like a visionary. Indeed, selecting Vidal to start looked blindingly obvious in the build-up to the match. This version of Barcelona can't really do without him, but perhaps the Cantabrian coach hasn't been at Barcelona sufficiently long to make all the right decisions quickly enough? Whatever the issue, Setien had better be fully aware that time is not your friend at Camp Nou.
Why all the fuss about Vidal? Well, because especially in the absence of Suarez, the Chilean is Messi's talisman player. With Vidal on the pitch, Messi woke up. He scampered intelligently, his passes hit the target more often, he linked again and again with Vidal and until Barcelona were ripped asunder for the second and decisive goal, the match suddenly became a very interesting and evenly balanced contest.
Watching Messi in that period was like watching Popeye, pale and frail in the path of Bluto's physical fury seconds earlier, scoff a tin of spinach and is suddenly unstoppable. Vidal is a clever footballer, a leader and a winner; there's an umbilical understanding between him and Messi about what they aspire to do on the pitch. Messi's revival when his play-partner came on suggests that what was ailing him was psychological and emotional, not physical. He went from "I'm hacked off" to "we can win this now" in the space of a substitution.
The thing that's absolutely vital about Vidal is the very component explaining why Messi is beginning to look so down in the dumps about where has, until now, assumed he'll be able to enjoy the "winter" years of his career.
Vidal is an absolute, low-down, brutal competitor. Feed him trophies and he gets hungrier; put obstacles in his way and he's Hulk-like in his "don't make me angry" demeanour. He and Suarez share that and, if you get my theme, Carles Puyol used to have this "right stuff." Dani Alves is made of it, Pedro oozes it, David Villa's career was excelsior because of it. Javier Mascherano is the living and breathing epitome of all that.
Seydou Keita, Samuel Eto'o, Pep Guardiola, Thierry Henry, Jose Pinto, Eric Abidal, Victor Valdes: all of them, too. Xavi and Andres Iniesta possessed elite competitive hunger but what obscured that was their technical elegance and brilliance.
For his entire Barcelona career, with the possible exception of 2007-08, Messi has existed in an ecosystem where daily work was integral to weekend performance. He was surrounded by people, like him, who were both blessed with talent and imbued with a ferocious will to win and to do whatever was necessary to win. Teammates who were irrepressibly competitive, rapaciously hungry and intimately aware of how much sacrifice was needed in order to be the very best and how to stay that way.
The basic will to compete is similar, but the means with which to exhibit that have declined rapidly. Rust, once it takes root, is hard to reverse. Pique still has all that, Sergio Busquets lives for it -- Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, too. But the former three have been part-authors of wanting to dictate how much intensity "being competitive" needed on a daily basis. Pique has kept the hordes at bay for most of the last two seasons while Busquets and Alba's respective form has become increasingly pallid. If Messi is Caesar, his Praetorian Guard is in pieces.
A climate has gradually crept in where there's an assumption, within the senior echelons of the squad, that they have so much talent, so much know-how and so much character that the blue-collar hard work and intensity, which made Barcelona the single most relentless "winning" team over the past 15 years, is less vital.
Surely, Messi has also been part of that atmosphere. Impossible for him, consciously or subconsciously, not to have been. Nevertheless, life is unfair.
Whether or not Messi holds partial culpability for a training-day atmosphere that did enough to keep the squad ticking over, but not sufficiently redoubtable to be able to run with Roma, PSG, Juve, Liverpool... and now Athletic, Levante, Granada or Valencia, he's entitled to look around and feel sick and tired of what he sees. Neither from a family, nor a sporting, point of view does he really want to have to uproot and move to Paris or Manchester, but the clock is ticking. His remaining chance at "great" seasons (perhaps two more, three at a push) might easily coincide with how long FC Barcelona require to cure their current ills.
I'm tipped, and I believe that Barcelona will open up the checkbook, properly this time, to repatriate Neymar this summer. Is Messi simply treading water until then? Would he be better heading off, for free, to PSG and pocketing unimaginable riches because that club wouldn't pay a transfer fee, and teaming up with his Brazilian buddy that way? Would he and Guardiola be happy to share the Catalan's final season (or two) at Man City in an attempt to dominate England and Europe together before Messi headed off to Rosario and the chance to retire with his beloved Newell's Old Boys?
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Those are questions only he can answer but right now, I think he's playing like a guy who reckons that his team is unbalanced, that the people in charge haven't been making a good job of building a winning squad for some time now and he's playing like a guy who's unsure whether to stick or twist.
Stick means putting up with whatever new European (and domestic?) ignominies the remainder of the season may bring, praying the new coach has some answers and teaming up with Neymar in the summer. Twist means putting the filigree on what has thus far been a heavenly career via a couple of hopefully brilliant "sign-off" seasons spread between either PSG or Manchester City, plus then either, say, Inter Miami or Newell's Old Boys.
Frankly, if it were you or me, we'd probably twist.
If there's a moral or spiritual debt in play here, it's from Barcelona to Messi, not vice versa. He's repaid them many times over for everything they have done for him or paid him. But Messi is Messi, always individualistic and elusive, and what we have to do now is judge by his body language, his form, his sometimes enigmatic words and the smoke signals coming out of the training ground what it is he's chosen.
What would you do?