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Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: the beginning of the end of Champions League dominance?

Maha Naeem Khan



Header Image by Rafael Marchante / Pool via Getty Images

For the first time in 15 years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both missed the Champions League semi-finals. Does this hint at the end of an era?

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two names known even among those who have no idea of anything going around in the footballing world. These two names just resonate with this game for decades now. Footie fans vouch for the magic they bring with their foot. While players get motivated to see them, young blood looks up to them as their guiding stars. Attracting the fans for their charm to saving their clubs from harm: this twain is exceptional in its rivalry as well as in the matchless performances. There was none like them, and there won’t be any to come.

Having said that, for a hard die fanatical of this duo, 2020 is a cursed year. Where Ronaldo’s allure failed to save Juventus from bowing out of the Champions League in the round of 32 against Olympique Lyonnais, Messi went home from Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz after having a miserable defeat in a game against Bayern Munich.

Messi, who has won Champions League four times previously, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who has won the title five times –– one with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid ––, both humiliatingly crashed to make to the last four this season. This was quite painful for the culés and the hunchbacks alike –– well, it must be. When after fifteen years, neither the magic of Messi nor the enchantment of Ronaldo worked to take both the clubs to the semi-finals, many eyebrows were raised.

It has been discussed lately that the undefeated Leo and unstoppable Christiano seem to be losing their charm. On paper, it has been predicted the time has come when the dominance of this couple in the world of football will finally end. But is it so? Factually, it sounds frustrating and unreal but it is bluntly obvious that the underlying problems lie with the clubs and not with the players. Both clubs, Juventus and Barcelona, are wasting the peak years of this unparalleled duo owing to the internal club issues, managerial matters, and inconceivable board decisions.

Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus Lionel Messi Barcelona Champions League

Barça and Juventus’ struggles have affected their main stars | Photo by Miguel Medina / AFP via Getty Images

While Juventus have been the biggest club in Italy, at least shown by being league champions, coach Maurizio Sarri had struggled critically to keep up the hopes for the club’s European and domestic titles. Cristiano Ronaldo faces many challenges as the patterns in Turin are way different than at Real Madrid. He doesn’t get the competition in domestic leagues which is required to be prepared for Champions League.

As for the blaugranas‘ number 10, the good for nothing board and inexperienced manager seems to have ruined it all. The tactics, the gameplay, the formation: when everything flattens the Catalans, eventually it comes to over-relying on Messi. He has to lead the team singlehandedly to win important matches which completely ignores the fact that football cannot be a one-man show and has to be played with a reliant team where everybody knows their role and are willing to play it.

All these issues spoiled the season for the superstars and undoubtedly, both legends are facing the twilight in their career. Nonetheless, although it hasn’t been pretty lately, many believe that they still have the potential to give a couple of more magical years to their fans. Conversely, one cannot ignore the fact that the couple is incredibly exceptional in the football field but when it comes to the pitch of ageing, they can’t show their skills to kick the ball of age coming towards them. One cannot deny that their skills are prone to ageing and these skills are meant to become challenging with time.

Naturally, the 35-year-old Portuguese and 33-year-old Argentine will have to say goodbye to the game one day. That day hasn’t come yet but it may be nearer. The spark isn’t dead yet but it’s dying. The charm isn’t lost yet but it will be lost. And the wait –– it isn’t over yet, but it will be. Hence, the end of an era might be an overstatement but, it is surely the beginning of the end.

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Being an occasional painter, I admire art and colors. When I first saw Lionel Messi spreading his spectrum of colours on the canvas of Camp Nou, I fell in love. Barcelona was the first club I was ever introduced to and I ended up becoming an overly emotional Barca fan. Watching them play is a distraction for me from the chaotic world outside and writing about them is a distraction from the diverse emotions inside the world of FC Barcelona.



Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time

Domagoj Kostanjšak



Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.

But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.

Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.

Pep Guardiola’s team reached heights unheard of in club football. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.

However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.

The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.

This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.

Baby steps. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.

But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.

The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.

We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.

The peak, not the standard. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.

But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.

Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.

And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.

Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.

So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.

Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.

The future, even without Leo, does look bright. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.

In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.

But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.

Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.

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