It must be difficult being as gifted as Lionel Messi.
Like the smartest kid in the class, the Argentine star gazes around him during lessons, perplexed at the stupidity and deficiencies of his fellow classmates.
Not so long ago, Messi was part of the advanced and gifted programme, surrounded by like-minded football genii who could finish each other’s sentences and crosses. But the rest of that group has graduated into retirement, and the 32-year-old has been left behind to play with mere mortals.
And as Barcelona’s magician gawped at every overhit cross and misplaced pass from his inferior teammates, that recurring nightmare hit him once more – he’s never going to lift the Champions League again.
But how on earth have the powers at Barcelona allowed such a decline to occur during the peak years of one of football’s greatest ever players.
Messi burst onto the scene in 2004, surrounded by true legends of the game. Andres Iniesta. Xavi. Ronaldinho. Samuel Eto’o. Deco. The list of attacking superstars is endless. A year later, Barcelona won the Champions League.
It was the first Champions League success for their wonderkid – and the first of many, one may have expected. Indeed, Messi has lifted the big European trophy a further three times, writing his name into the tournament’s history forever.
But the overriding emotion towards the competition remains disappointment.
Since their 2015 victory over Juventus, Barça’s Champions League journeys have taken the shape of one mishap after another. A surprise quarter-final defeat to La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid in 2016 was followed by a first-leg hammering at the hands of Juventus at the same stage in 2017.
Those disappointments pale in comparison to their failings over the next two years, however. An implausible implosion in Rome meant that La Blaugrana threw away a three-goal advantage from the first leg, and they suffered the exact same fate against Liverpool a year later in the semi-finals.
Four years of underachievement have finally simmered to boiling point.
Gone are the days of linking up with Dani Alves on the right-hand side, or playing defence-splitting one-twos with Iniesta. Messi must settle for the likes of the technically-flawed Nelson Semedo, or the loose cannon that is Arturo Vidal in midfield.
The decline in the squad’s cohesion and talent is staggering.
Barcelona were up against a stubborn and well-organised Napoli side on Tuesday evening, and the Italians’ game plan was clear from the off: frustrate, and counter. I Partenopei have improved of late, but still languish in sixth place in the Serie A table, and are a far cry from the team which wowed us all under Maurizio Sarri a couple of years ago.
And yet, they were made to look like masters in the art of defence against La Blaugrana, who simply couldn’t find the spark to get their game into gear. Barça’s game plan consisted of pushing the ball from the defence, to the midfield, back to the defence, back to the midfield, switch from side to side, and then clip the ball aimlessly over the top for a goal kick. And repeat.
Champions League Round of 16: First Leg
A tough watch. And it highlights the lack of identity at the club since the days of tiki taka under Pep Guardiola, and the destructive trident of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The easy-on-the-eye passing has remained, but an inability to open teams up with a change of pace and a lack of an incisive through ball now plagues their style.
But no Catalonian supporter would have been more exasperated than their number ten, who dropped deeper and deeper to try and inspire some resemblance of an attacking intent amongst his colleagues.
Messi drove at the Napoli defence, twisting and turning in the tightest of spaces – in ways that only he could – trying desperately to work a shooting opportunity for himself or his teammates. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
The lack of successful linkup play between the forward and his fellow Barça stars speaks to the painful normality of the players that surround the talisman.
It’s no secret that the Argentinian international has shouldered the responsibility of carrying this Barcelona side for some years, but Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Napoli made it apparent just how hopeless this team is without him.
Despite dominating possession, Barça rarely threatened the Italian’s goal, and Jose Callejon had arguably the best chance of the match for the hosts, following Antoine Griezmann’s equaliser.
The truth is, although the Spanish champions laboured to a draw in the first leg, they will probably overcome the stubborn Italians at Camp Nou and progress to the quarter-finals. But the ugly truth is, they won’t get much further.
And the biggest truth of them all is, Barcelona won’t win the Champions League this season.
Nor next season. And probably not the season after that.
You could make an argument for four or five different teams lifting the European trophy this year. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool and Juventus are all at a level to win the Champions League, and each club will be confident in their own abilities.
For Barcelona, their selling point is simply ‘we have Messi.’ While that USP does stand for more than most, it’s not enough to win the biggest competition in club football. Not anymore. The 32-year-old is as good as he has ever been – if not better – but football has moved on. And left Barcelona behind.
The Catalan giants have simply failed to replace their departed stars of the past with adequate reinforcements, and the huge sums of money spent on the likes of Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho have proved to be poor choices.
The lack of creativity in midfield and alongside Messi in attack is alarming, and the mental fragility of the players cripples them on the biggest stage, time and time again. The appointment of a new manager is no longer an efficient process; it’s a long, drawn-out soap opera of leaked stories and rejections.
Ousmane Dembele,Philippe Coutinho
And the necessity – and then decision – to sign Martin Braithwaite after the winter window had closed is just about the icing on the cake.
The whole club reeks of neglect and a shirking of responsibility. A huge rebuild and squad overhaul is needed, and it wont happen in Messi’s lifetime.
Messi now finds himself at a crossroads. Despite the circus that follows the superstar regarding his future at Barcelona, and the clause which allows him to leave the club at the end of any given season, it is evident that the forward would rather see out his final playing years in Catalonia.
But another failure in Europe would once again raise doubts in the superstar’s mind over the possible success behind this patchwork squad, that has been shoddily stacked around him.
With tensions high between players and the Barça hierarchy, and the likelihood of Champions League glory slipping away, Messi must decide what he values more: his Barcelona legacy or his trophy cabinet.