Everything related to Lionel Messi’s future in Barcelona has been complex since he said he wanted out last summer. So it would only make sense to see yet another shocking twist after this season, wouldn’t it?
I never would have thought the Argentine’s tenure with the club would last beyond this season. Now, however, a short-term renewal seems entirely believable, if not likely. And yes, I know that Barcelona has already been eliminated from the Champions League.
Below is the case for Barcelona, despite all that has gone wrong in recent years, keeping the Argentine. While the club’s finances are a mess, they’ll certainly be willing to either A) increase their already massive debt and/or B) creatively renew Messi in a way that works (at least legally) for now, even if it makes the financial problems even worse in the future. What I’m (not-so-boldly) predicting is if Messi decides he’s in, there’s no way Barcelona’s response will be, “sorry, we can’t afford it.”
Signs of Life Against PSG
Though Barcelona never really put PSG against the ropes last week in Leg 2 of their Champions League round of 16 match-up – PSG came into the match up 4-1 on aggregate and it never got closer than 5-2 – their statistical dominance backed up a solid showing in terms of the all-important eye test. Barcelona outshot PSG 10-3 and held a 73-27 edge in percentage of possession. If not for a Herculean effort by Keylor Navas, it might have been 2017 all over again. For Barcelona, it was all for naught because of what happened in leg 1, but it was still impressive.
More importantly, for the “why Messi might stay” argument, it was the latest strong performance by a team in the midst of a hell of a turnaround since December. Before I go any further, here are the factors that have me believing the Messi-Barcelona marriage is not destined for the summer ’21 divorce we all thought it was back in August ’20.
- Barcelona suddenly has a legit shot to win both La Liga and the Copa del Rey
- Messi is, to stick to completely objective, quantifiable claims, having a blast playing with Pedri and Barcelona’s growing list of promising young pieces
- Ronald Koeman has, at worst, been much better than anyone expected, and should stick around
- In Joan Laporta, Barcelona has a president whom Messi respects
Could Barcelona Capture Another La Liga Trophy?
As Bill Connelly of ESPN.com became the latest to point out in his Panic Index piece published on Tuesday, Barcelona has a hell of a shot to overtake Atlético Madrid in first place. First of all, Atleti’s cushion is just four points with 11 games remaining. One of those is a May 9 trip to Camp Nou. The Catalans are unbeaten in La Liga since December 5. Atleti, on the other hand, is struggling, capturing just 13 of 24 possible points over their last eight matches.
I wrote late last week that “it seems very possible that Barcelona will trail Atleti by three points or less by the team they meet in May.” After Atleti’s 0-0 draw vs. Getafe, which played the final 20 minutes of the match with 10 men, over the weekend, that prediction might have been an understatement.
Oddsmakers see the title race as wide open, as Atleti is currently -150, compared to Barcelona at +175. FiveThirtyEight sees Barcelona (48% chance to win the title) as a better bet than Atleti (37% chance).
More than the fact that Barcelona is blowing out the likes of Huesca (4-1 on March 15) and Elche (3-0 on Feb. 24), it’s the cohesion* they appear to have right now that makes Messi staying around seem believable.
*Recent editions of Barcelona did not have the toughness to pull off the comebacks this year’s team did in both the quarters (vs. Granada) and semis (vs. Sevilla) of the Copa del Rey.
The Catalans are suddenly young(er) and (more) fun to watch
Ansu Fati technically broke out last season, and he followed that with an incredible start to ’20-21 before suffering an injury. Even without Fati on the pitch for several months now, Barcelona suddenly has a number of extremely promising young players.
It all starts with Pedri, the midfielder who is 18 going on 30. It took him about two months to become an undisputed starter in Ronald Koeman’s midfield, and if his Transfermarkt value of $55M doesn’t convince you of his value, consider the way Messi looks at him in Squawka’s well-done breakdown of their relationship below:
In addition to Pedri, center backs Oscar Mingueza (21) and Ronald Araujo (22) have exceeded expecations when called upon. Yet another player, 18-year-old midfielder Ilaix Moriba, has gone from unknown to exciting first-team contributor over the last month.
Throw in Riqui Puig (21) as well as Frenkie de Jong (still just 23) and USMNTer Sergiño Dest (20), and that’s a hell of a young core. And we haven’t even mentioned Ousmane Dembele (23), who’s had the best/healthiest season of his Barcelona career.
It’s those players, perhaps more than longtime teammates Sergio Busquests, Gerard Piqué, etc., who could convince Messi to stick around.
Ronald Koeman is pressing all the right buttons
When the Dutch manager got the job, many of us did not question how his first season would go. Instead, many of us wondered whether he would make it to the final day of the season. But Koeman has blown the understandably low expectations for this team out of the water.
In addition to the faith he’s shown in the young players mentioned above – and the massive strides they’ve made as a result – his tactics have provided a jolt in recent weeks. Koeman’s new preferred lineup of a back three, with Jordi Alba and Dest as wing backs, has produced four wins and a draw over the last five games in all competitions, by a combined score of 12-2.
If Barcelona manages to win La Liga and/or the Copa, Koeman will be a slam-dunk as coach of the year.
Even if the Catalans finish just short of first place in La Liga, Koeman’s impact on Pedri and his team’s young players should make keeping him around an easy decision.
Messi surely wouldn’t mind Xavi becoming his manager at some point. For now, though, he has to like what Koeman has done for him and his team this season.
Joan Laporta should stabilize the club’s board
Messi and a number of other big names cast their votes in Barcelona’s recent presidential elections. That resulted in Laporta returning to the club he led from ’03-10. Messi understandably has fond memories of that stretch of his career, and reportedly backs Laporta. Having a president he doesn’t despise is a huge deal. It doesn’t sound like much, but it matters given the well-documented animosity between Messi and ex-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Before this season, I would have said Barcelona would need
a lot a miracle to keep the G.O.A.T. But if ’20-21 ends with him holding a trophy or two (I admit that remains an if), while surrounded by talented, athletic young pieces, a manager he respects and a president he believes in, I just don’t see him walking away.