Saturday, April 17, 2021

Barcelona give Messi a reason to believe even after Champions League failure

SoccerNews in La Liga 10 Mar 2021

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Another year, another early Champions League exit for Barcelona.

Despite Lionel Messi’s sparkling intransigence, there was to be no second ‘remontada’ against Paris Saint-Germain. After Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the past three years, 2021 saw Barca dance their last tango in Paris, a sixth season in a row of knockout failure. The opponents change, but the story stays the same.

Or does it?

This was not Rome, nor Anfield, nor Lisbon, the scene of last year’s 8-2 annihilation by Bayern. This was not Barca collapsing under pressure, wilting before foreign crowds or just plain giving up. Their 5-2 aggregate loss to PSG was born of a wretched first-leg performance, but they are not the team they were just three weeks ago. At Parc des Princes, they showed that. Messi showed that.

Since that 4-1 loss at Camp Nou, Barca have won four games and drawn two, conceding just two goals, a penalty here and against Cadiz. They have closed back to within six points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, breathing life into a title challenge that had looked over in the autumn.

In a Copa del Rey comeback against Sevilla, they played with verve and passion seldom seen in the recent years of squad mismanagement and boardroom chaos. And while they didn’t beat PSG, they were the dominant side and thwarted mostly by man-of-the-match Keylor Navas, their performance in a different stratosphere to that sad clown act against Bayern a year ago.

We’re into a new era now, of course. Joan Laporta, the man who appointed Pep Guardiola, who oversaw Messi’s introduction to the world stage and counts the club captain as a friend, was voted in as president again on Sunday. He assured members he was their best chance of seeing Messi sign a new contract; what he saw on Wednesday as he watched from the stands will not have dissolved that belief.

What Messi wants, what he has always wanted, is a winning project. His protracted and ultimately futile efforts to leave last year were fuelled not just by the ugliness of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s final months as president, but by the fear that winning the biggest trophies on offer – this trophy, to be precise – had slipped away. He wants a coach with a plan, a team with panache, and a collective drive to knit it together.

If he had none of that in the first leg, he certainly did in Paris.

Without first-choice centre-backs in Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo, Ronald Koeman dropped Frenkie de Jong into a back three with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza. It meant attacking full-backs, Pedri and Sergio Busquets could all be accommodated behind Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. At an average age of 26 years and 166 days old, it was also Barcelona’s youngest starting XI in a Champions League knockout tie since they beat Stuttgart 4-0 in March 2010 under Guardiola.

It was a bold set-up, and the players embraced it. They had 73 per cent of the ball in the first half, attempting 10 shots in the first 26 minutes, just two short of their total from the first leg. Dembele could have scored twice but for Navas; Mingueza narrowly missed contact with a clear header. Barca ended the half with 16 attempts, the most in the first 45 minutes of a game since January 2019 against Levante, and the most by far faced by PSG in a first half at home all season.

Kylian Mbappe perhaps thought the tie was dead when he swept home from the spot against the run of play, Lenglet punished by VAR for an entirely accidental trip on Mauro Icardi, but Messi had other ideas. His equaliser was a sensational, swerving strike that had Navas grasping at thin air. He should have made it 2-1 before the break, but Navas’ leg and the underside of the crossbar combined to keep out his penalty. An inch or two either way, and they really would have believed.

That was the key difference to those awful European nights experienced by Messi since he last won this trophy six years ago. Where before came embarrassment, anger and inquests, here there was disappointment – but reason to hope. They outplayed last season’s beaten finalists on their own patch in a way that looked impossible a month ago.

Barca are not where they want to be – far from it – and this season will still be remembered for failure in Europe. But they are, as a club, at last moving in the right direction. Whether Messi chooses to be part of that progress next season is, even now, difficult to predict. And if this was the last time we saw him in this tournament in a Barca shirt, at least it was a more fitting farewell.

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