Ever since Lionel Messi came onto the scene, La Liga title races have been monotone. One team, usually Barcelona, dominates from start to finish and keep adding to their tally.
Whenever a team not named Barcelona wins, it looks, and feels, like an anomaly. However, this season, Barcelona winning the league would be the anomaly. The giants’ start to the season was lacklustre, and they are only finding form in January after losing several points due to errors and less-than-adequate lineups.
In their first 15 games of the season, Barcelona lost four times while drawing the same number of games. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, Clément Lenglet, and Lionel Messi were severely underperforming, while others continued to have their ups and downs. The Catalans made four errors leading to goals to end 2020, one each from Ronald Araujo, Lenglet, Neto, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. All these errors were unprovoked, amateur mistakes and that should never happen with Barcelona.
In fact, Barcelona ended the year the same way they opened it by drawing. This time, Eibar, a team that usually gets a thumping loss at Camp Nou, won their first point away to Barça. Ronald Araujo was on the end of a rookie error, and the hosts had to be rescued by Ousmane Dembele who came on as a substitute.
However, in 2021, Barcelona look like a different team. A lot has changed since Messi’s interview with Jordi Évole.
First, the captain himself feels happier, as he claimed, and the team looks set to revolve around him again. Then, the team looks way more composed, as if leaving 2020 relieved them of a heavy burden.
For example, against Granada on Saturday, Frenkie de Jong made a mistake in the opening five minutes of the game. Marc-André Ter Stegen parried the shot that followed the Dutchman’s weak pass, and almost forgetting all about it, de Jong had a top-notch display.
All in all, 2021 has started well for Barça. Three away wins in a week, and the Catalans were two points off Madrid following their 4-0 victory at Estadio Los Carmenes. And after an unbeaten run of eight games in the league, and just one loss in 2021 so far, Culés might want to entertain the thought that they can disrupt both Atlético and Real Madrid and win the league, or at least come close.
However, as it stands, it all seems like a distant dream. The recent displays might have shown Culés that Barça can play well, but often require a reality check to get going in front of goal. The last three opponents the Blaugranas faced were rock-bottom Huesca, Athletic Club with Marcelino managing his first game and a decent Granada.
Playing against Granada and Bilbao away from home is far from a simple task. Last season, Barça lost to both sides without scoring. However, these are the games that define a season. If Ronald Koeman could not win against those sides, the fans would call for his head.
Not to mention Atlético are still first in La Liga, and seem to be running away with the title. Los Colchoneros were meant to play against Athletic Club before the Granada-Barcelona game, but a snowstorm got in the way and postponed it. After Atletico’s win over Sevilla and Eibar, though, they are ten points clear off Barcelona and four clear off Real Madrid, with two games in hand.
Assuming Atléti win those two games, they will have a 16-point lead on Barça. This margin looks too big for Barça, or any team, to leapfrog Diego Simeone’s men. Nonetheless, Luis Suarez’s teammates have never been in the La Liga driving seat. This means that the pressure could still get to their head and they might lose many points soon.
Atlético already lost against Cornella in the Cup, Real Madrid in December and Bayern Munich back in October. Barcelona could destabilise the current leaders by beating them at Camp Nou in May, especially if Koeman’s tactics persist.
The sudden change to a 4-3-3 by Koeman came after five months of stubbornly trying to fit four attackers in a 4-2-3-1. The 4-3-3 revitalised the side and propelled Messi’s teammates towards a comeback against Athletic Club and demolition of Diego Martinez’s Granada. Clearly, this lineup fits everyone better than the unbalanced 4-2-3-1.
Ousmane Dembélé, de Jong, Pedri, Messi, and Griezmann all found form in the 4-3-3, and they do not look like stopping anytime soon. Even when one or all of them have less-pleasing performances, the others come and help them get through their rough patch, because the 4-3-3 is much more balances, and allows every individual enough room to create and slaughter.
For example, Dembélé had a bad display against Granada but still registered an assist thanks to Griezmann’s brilliant off the ball run. Even against Cornella, Pedri was able to come into the lineup seamlessly and rescued the game giving two assists.
This is what champions do. When one player falls, others help him get back on his feet. This is how Atlético won their last two games in the league. With Suarez, everyone thought Atlético could win the league because they had a proven winner through their ranks. Well, Barcelona have Messi and a few other champions in their side.
Whenever champions fall, they only need a few games to get back up. Barcelona fell really hard against Bayern in August, and it took five months for them to get over the humiliation. This week might prove crucial to their chances of being in a title race. Until then, let’s hope Barcelona can keep their excellent form and end the campaign in better shape than the last one.
A significant week in Barcelona for Lionel Messi’s future
It is a topic that gets the football world giddy. The fantasies of Lionel Messi playing in the Premier League, the formation of another star-studded front three alongside Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe, and for the romantics, a return to Argentina is set in their hearts.
After the infamous events of the summer of 2020, now more than ever, the biggest legend of FC Barcelona looks closer than ever to leaving.
Many Barça fans feel that it could be a good thing that the six-time Ballon D’or winner leaves, bringing up the point that the Catalan side needs a hard restart next season and the idea of building a team around a 33-year-old does not seem logical, as it only benefits the near future.
This is a valid point and most likely comes from those who want not only the best for Barca but Messi as well, as Cúlers are not ignorant to the fact that the club cannot promise their beloved number ten the fifth Champions League trophy he craves in its current situation.
However, in an ideal world, Barça fans would want Messi to stay and win his fifth European Cup wearing Blaugrana and if that is to happen, the week that went by is the only decider on course for the club and player alike.
The Copa Del Rey comeback
In the interview with Jordi Évole on LaSexta last December, Lionel Messi stated that he “wanted to keep competing to win trophies.”
Two weeks ago, that desire for this season looked unlikely. Atletico Madrid had a sizeable lead over the Catalans in La Liga, Paris Saint-Germain built up a 1-4 lead in the Champions League, and Sevilla had a 2-0 advantage in the Copa del Rey.
The first of these tasks was addressed on Wednesday night, in what turned out to be a memorable night in the history of FC Barcelona. A 94th minute Gerard Pique header sent Barça into extra time, where Martin Braithwaite completed the comeback to send the Catalans through to the final 3-2 on aggregate.
The chance to win another trophy would no doubt have pleased Messi but it is the story of the match that will help keep the Argentine at the club next season.
If Messi stopped and looked around the Camp Nou on Wednesday night, he would have seen determination and heart from his teammates to keep going to the final whistle, an abundance of youthful talent performing at a level beyond their years, and world-class players such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen ready to step up when certain challenges emerged.
Throughout one night, all these combined into a sort of presentation to the Argentine, exhibiting the future of FC Barcelona and where the team is headed.
There is no denying that the gap between Barcelona and Europe’s elite is still large, but this performance showed the signs Messi has called for and that is something that can be noted down for the future.
The perfect Liga weekend
Looking ahead to the weekend, the second of Barcelona’s comeback missions received an encouraging boost.
The Catalan side were looking to go 16 games unbeaten in La Liga in a match against twelfth place Osasuna and a win would not only see them extend this run but close the gap on Atletico Madrid to just two points, albeit with two games in hand.
The importance of this weekend lied in Atletico’s game as they face city rivals Real Madrid. In an ideal world, Barça fans would hope that the spoils are shared in El Derbi allowing the Blaugrana side to gain points on both Madrid clubs.
Barcelona’s prayers were catered to, and not only did the Catalan giants pick up three ugly, yet important points from their encounter against Osasuna, the capital outfits had to settle for a draw. Playing the angel’s advocate, even if Atleti had come away with the three points, it would essentially narrow the title race to just two teams considering Los Colchoneros gap at the top.
From Lionel Messi’s point of view, winning the La Liga title from the position Barça found themselves in a few weeks back would be a huge encouragement to stay for another season, especially if it is accompanied by the Copa del Rey. The Argentine has been part of teams that let leads slip over the last three seasons and to flip the script on that, would ultimately show progress.
The Presidential election
The final act of the week was the 2021 Presidential Election, where the next president of FC Barcelona was chosen on Sunday night. Joan Laporta, Victor Font, and Toni Freixa were the three candidates fighting for Barça’s top spot, and all have addressed the situation of Lionel Messi throughout their campaigns.
Joan Laporta had emerged as the favourite for a second spell, and like everyone suspected, the Spaniard swayed the elections, coming on top as the winner. Ideally, it would have a significant impact on the future of La Pulga, as Messi showed up to vote for the elections for the first time in his life. In fact, Laporta went on to claim that Leo congratulated him on the night. His renewal will be one of the many hurdles Laporta will have to jump over.
Throughout the presidential campaign, it has been rumoured that Messi will not stay if Joan Laporta does not win. Laporta himself fuelled these rumours on Tuesday during the last of the Presidential debates.
The Spaniard stated, “If I don’t win, I am sure that Leo will not stay at Barcelona”.
“If I don’t win, I am sure that Leo will not stay at Barcelona. “Messi will weigh up the offer we make him. I’m convinced that if the other candidates win, Messi will not remain at Barcelona. He wasn’t happy during Freixa’s time on the board.”Joan Laporta in the presidential debate
If these feelings are believed to be true, the future of Lionel Messi could take a dramatic twist on Sunday.
Having said all this, Lionel Messi’s future could come down to one simple desire, to win a fifth European Cup. At 33 years old, the Argentine does not have time on his side in this pursuit, and it could be years before Barcelona can compete for Europe’s top prize again.
With ready-made teams such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain waiting on the side-lines, the final decision in June could come down to this week — if this week does not make it for the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, there is little chance anything else will.