Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez have been one of the deadliest duos in football history, but with the latter’s decline, their friendship may be having a negative impact on the game. Is this strong bond one of Leo’s rare flaws?
Lionel Messi has been the greatest player in the history of football. Watching him play leaves every football fan dumbstruck. Even as he ages into his twilight years, he manages to surprise viewers. He has been carrying Barcelona on since the departure of club legends like Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. When one thinks of Barcelona, the first thing that springs to mind is Messi. He has been a defining player in the history of the club and of football as a whole. But he isn’t without his flaws. However, unlikely as it might seem, Messi is still a human.
On the technical side of things, Messi is the definition of perfection. But his Achilles’ heel happens to be something that shows us his human side. La Pulga has a special influence in the Barcelona dressing room, due to obvious reasons. In most cases, this has led Barça to great heights. Sometimes, though, even he makes mistakes.
Luis Suárez has been playing the entire 90 minutes for quite a few games now. It would be normal to think that Suárez’s name should definitely be one of the first in the line-up. Nonetheless, the fact is that Suárez is in bad form. Really bad form. Since his knee surgery, his age seems to have caught up with him and it is obvious that he has lost some of the assets that once made him so threatening in front of goal. He cannot make those clever runs anymore, and neither can he shoot with as much accuracy.
“We always try to have Suárez and Messi on the pitch. It is difficult to find a place for Griezmann without destabilising the team”
after having benched Antoine Griezmann against Atlético de Madrid
This raises the questions: why is he still playing the entire 90 minutes? And, if one only wants to use his pure class to shine through and help win difficult games, why isn’t he brought on in the final 30 minutes when he can work harder and give it his all instead of saving himself for entire games?
One answer that immediately springs to mind is his relationship with Lionel Messi. The duo are very close to each other and it is quite possible that Suárez has appealed to Messi. Maybe it begins with a “Give me some time, and I’ll be back to my best”. Maybe it continues with a “Oh, it’s just bad luck and rustiness, it will pass”. But where does it end?
It is extremely difficult to say no to a person who has been your best friend and dear teammate for the past six years. It is difficult to see that the man you used to link up with so magnificently is on a drastic decline. Perhaps it is denial on Messi’s part and perhaps it is the combination of Leo’s opinion and the coach’s decisions. But it is highly likely that the Argentine has something to do with it.
The Messi–Suárez should have a positive, not negative, influence on the pitch | Photo by Kirchner / Neundorf via Imago
Even on the pitch, it is evident that Messi is constantly trying to find El Pistolero. Lionel might be trying to help Suárez find his old self. In fact, it even has even worked on some occasions, with Suárez’s two goals against Celta de Vigo a result of the deadly combination. But more often than not, it hasn’t worked.
Suárez has lost possession quite often, and he can no longer run past defenders or make exquisite runs. His touch has been poor and we can only see glimpses of his former self. Not just that: Messi’s attempt to find Suarez has often seen Antoine Griezmann overlooked. The Frenchman has been poor in front of goal, but he has also suffered due to lack of service.
Messi’s supernatural link with Suárez has been a force to deal with for the last five years. But maybe it is time for Leo to accept that the number 9 isn’t what he used to be. It is time for him to accept that Luis will better serve the club by coming off the bench, or at least being subbed off after 60 minutes. This is just speculation, and none of us really knows how much influence does Messi have in the team selections. But if he has any, the coach and footballers should be able to separate the off-field matters from the on-field ones.
Luis Suárez has been an integral part of the team for a long time, but it is Messi’s responsibility as captain to realise that he must put the game over his friendship and move on. The effects of the same can be seen throughout the blaugranas‘ game style, and it is high time that the dressing room realises the same.
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.