The Argentine is desperate to win another European title for his club, but overcoming a 4-1 first-leg deficit to PSG is unlikely.
Lionel Messi has only one ambition in life: to win the Champions League once more. That isn’t a secret.
The Barcelona captain gave a stirring speech on the pitch at Camp Nou at the start of the 2018-19 season, declaring that the club was on a mission to conquer Europe.
Messi felt obligated to make amends for the Catalans’ humiliating quarter-final defeat to Roma at the Stadio Olimpico just four months prior, when the Catalans conspired against themselves to lose 3-0 in the return match after blowing a 4-1 first-leg lead.
Barcelona, he had no idea, had just endured the first of a hat-trick of humiliating European exits. The second was even more agonising, with a 3-0 lead in the first leg of their semi-final tie with Liverpool being shockingly reversed at Anfield.
Last August, when Bayern Munich thrashed Barca 8-2, the defeat was met with more sympathy than surprise. Devastating Champions League losses had become the norm by that point.
Messi had remained defiant after Liverpool’s defeat.
He said he didn’t regret publicly admitting his desire to bring the European Cup back to Camp Nou. He insisted that Barca would try again.
However, the captain had had enough by the time Bayern thrashed Barcelona into submission at the end of a demoralising 2019-20 campaign.
He didn’t speak publicly. Instead, he sent the club a burofax, requesting that he be allowed to leave.
Is it any wonder Messi tried to escape? Barcelona have wasted his best years over the second half of the last decade with the club in steep decline.
The 2015 Champions League victory in Berlin, six long years ago, should have been the start of something fantastic, but it was really the start of the end.
The team lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, wasted €400 million (£342 million/$475 million) on Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, and Ousmane Dembele, and sunk into internal turmoil and financial ruin.
In 2016, and 2017, the club was eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid and Juventus, respectively, but it was in Rome that the club began to become a laughingstock. It was no longer a suitable residence for arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, a six-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Only now, with the election of Joan Laporta as club president to replace the disgraced Josep Maria Bartomeu, can Barcelona start to emerge from the black hole of the past five years.
Bartomeu’s arrest last week was the hand bursting from the grave at the end of a horror flick, a final reminder of the sad state of the club before the new era begins.
During cava-fueled festivities at Camp Nou on Sunday night, Laporta exclaimed, “To Paris, to start a comeback!”
That is where Messi’s challenge continues, but with Barcelona trailing 4-1 from the first leg to a Kylian Mbappe-inspired PSG, a miracle is needed for the Catalans to advance to the quarter-finals.
That is exactly what they did in 2017, with that incredible 6-1 comeback, but they no longer have Messi’s ideal sidekicks, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
It has taken over three years for Dembele to show any kind of consistency as Neymar’s direct replacement, while Griezmann has never been anywhere near as decisive as he was when helping former club Atletico knock Barca out of the Champions League quarter-finals in 2016.
Of course, the Coutinho case is even worse. The Brazilian joined from Liverpool in 2018 for a record €160m ($137m/$190m) but he is best remembered for scoring two goals for Bayern against Barca in a moment of high farce in Lisbon seven months ago.
On the field, Barca’s condition has improved this season – at least on a domestic level. The club is now 14 games unbeaten in the league, putting pressure on Atletico Madrid, and they have played much better in the last two weeks after switching to a three-central defender and two-wing-back formation.
Meanwhile, their comeback against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi-finals will give them real hope. Climbing back against PSG, on the other hand, could be a step too far.
In fact, this is a club that is still coming to terms with Bartomeu’s board’s failures.
As Messi told Goal:
“There has been no project or anything like that for a long time. They just juggle and cover holes as they go.”
Sadly, it has been too often left to Barca’s talisman to point out the painful truth.
“We have to apologize,”
he said after the 4-0 loss at Infield two years ago.
“Not because of the result but because of how it looked and that we didn’t compete. It was one of the worst experiences of my career.”
He was one of the few Barca players who didn’t make a fool of himself that night, as he set up clear-cut opportunities for his teammates that went begging.
And it’s for this reason that Messi is so irritated. He has managed to pull his weight every year since Barcelona last won the Champions League.
He’s on track to finish as La Liga’s top scorer for the fifth time in a row, and he’s also been the division’s top assist provider for the past three seasons.
He was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2016 and 2017, and he retained it for the record-breaking sixth time in 2019.
Against Napoli in last year’s last 16, Messi carried his team through with a masterclass at Camp Nou, scoring a brilliant goal and drawing a penalty, thus setting up the fateful clash with Bayern in Lisbon. He could have just as well not bothered.
With his deal expiring in June, the Argentine will be 34 in the summer and free to leave. Laporta’s first task is to persuade him to stay.
But, if the new president fails, the Parc des Princes is likely to be Messi’s last Champions League appearance with Barcelona.
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