Wednesday 16 January 2019

Life without Messi doesn't bear thinking about for Barca


Lionel Messi. Photo: Reuters
Lionel Messi. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

'Who does Lionel Messi play for?" Pep Guardiola asked in December, demanding that the representative from Sky Sports play his straight man in what proved an awkward rhetorical flourish.

Guardiola was answering the question of who he thought were the favourites in the knockout stages of the Champions League and he wanted to make a point. Barcelona? "They are the favourites."

When Jurgen Klopp was considering the notion - laughable in his view - that some had about certain modern players being too big to be told anything, a law unto themselves, he did stop himself to offer one exception.

He imagined what it might be like to be Messi's manager and affected the kind of tone Smithers might adopt when he has a difficult truth to deliver to Mr Burns. "Ahem, Leo, we have Getafe on Saturday, if you were able to play that would be nice."

You only had to watch Antonio Conte seek out Messi at the Nou Camp after Chelsea's 3-0 defeat last month to know what he thought about the Argentinian.

Around him Chelsea's players were doing their best to appear suitably downcast over another Champions League exit, while Conte threw an arm around Messi and beamed as he shared a few words with the little maestro, proving that you do not have to be 10 years old to get giddy around the world's best footballer.

Three successful managers, all of whom have been ruthless at times with talented footballers who did not fit their system.

They all see football one way, unless you are talking about Messi, in which case they, too, seem to agree that different rules apply.

The weekend hat-trick against Leganes in the league at the weekend, the 40th of his career, puts him on 39 goals for the season and on the brink of his ninth consecutive season with 40 goals or more.

Against Roma, however, he could not deliver them to safety this time, and for those who have watched Barcelona all season it was an outcome that had been threatened before. Messi, and to a lesser extent the German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, have been the team's outstanding performers and have saved them on a number of occasions.

Against Roma, with the game unravelling, there was to be no last act and Barcelona fizzled out with Gerard Pique in attack, proving that even the best teams occasionally run out of good ideas.

There will no doubt be a reckoning for this defeat, when Messi leads the evisceration of another opponent and the Nou Camp can console itself that there are a good few years left in him yet. But even Messi, 31 next month, cannot go on forever, and Tuesday night for Barcelona was a little glimpse of what awaits them when they can no longer rely on his genius.

There is no succession planning for a man of Messi's status, no place to go to get a replacement, and no likelihood that there will ever be another. How well equipped the club are to face the future, if their predictions for this year's financial results bear out, is debatable.

They anticipated a €188 million rise in revenue to €897m, which would make them the most lucrative club in the world, although that is chiefly down to the sale of Neymar.

The effect of Messi's new contract, finally agreed in November, as well as other renewals and signings, has been huge, with the annual wage bill at Barcelona expected to rise from €365m to €479m.

That is affordable under the anticipated uplift in Barcelona's revenue for this year, but it begs the question how the club will cope in future years when they do not have a Neymar sale to offset spending.

Next season, Philippe Coutinho will be Champions League-eligible and much more will be expected of him, although you suspect it will take more than just one player to wean Barcelona from the Messi dependency. Given how much they are paying him to stay for the next three years, the club will seek to delay that for as long as they can.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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