MADRID: Lionel Messi put his arm around Ilaix Moriba, the 18-year-old born in the same year Messi made his Barcelona debut and who was now being given his own chance to play for the club’s first team. Ilaix had just set up the opening goal against Alaves on Saturday when he was congratulated by his 33-year-old captain, whose task it is tonight to lead this youthful Barca to an unfancied victory against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16.
From nurturing the next generation of Barcelona talents to confronting one of Europe’s richest, most ambitious clubs, the fork in the road for Messi’s future is becoming clear. PSG may not be Messi’s preferred choice this summer, especially if Manchester City decide the Argentinian is the final piece of the jigsaw for a team already ahead of the rest in the Premier League.
But the two clubs remain his most realistic destinations, both united in representing almost everything that staying put at Barcelona would not. Clubs ready, in theory, to win the biggest trophies immediately and able to spend whatever it takes to do it. Meanwhile Messi’s suspicions in August, when he sent the burofax requesting he depart for free, have arguably been confirmed. Barcelona appear neither ready to win the biggest trophies immediately nor able to spend what is needed to do it.
As it stands, Koeman’s team sit third in La Liga, eight points behind Atletico Madrid. They were beaten by Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup and trail Sevilla 2-0 after the semi-final first leg of the Copa del Rey. And yet while nobody knows what Messi will decide, perhaps not even Messi — who told La Sexta in December he “wouldn’t be right to say what I’m going to do because I don’t know either” — there is reason to think Barca’s chances have not only survived the disappointments but been improved in spite of them.
When Messi explained to goal.com why he wanted to go last summer, he reiterated his desire for a “winning project” but also said he “wanted to live my last years in football happily”. He admitted how hard it was to tell his family they were leaving. For the first few weeks of the season, he seemed distracted, like a player giving his all while simultaneously wishing he was somewhere else.
Yet Barcelona stabilized under Koeman — never perfect and always far from the finished article — but with a renewed sense of purpose emerging. Koeman has enabled struggling players to flourish and promising youngsters to shine. Pedri, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder, has stood out, his eye for a pass chiming with Messi’s quickness of thought. “In Pedri, Messi has found a reason to enjoy the game again,” wrote Diario Sport in January.
Ansu Fati sparkled before injury struck in November while in defense, the 21-year-old Ronald Araujo, who is also expected to miss the first leg with an ankle problem, emerged as Koeman’s most reliable central defender. Frenkie de Jong has excelled in recent weeks and Ousmane Dembele is enjoying his best spell at the club so far. Messi, like the team, has looked happy. “He is focused, he is happy, he has found that ruthless streak again,” said Koeman on Saturday.
Excitement may prove misplaced or, at least, premature given there are no guarantees Barcelona’s depleted defense will not cave against PSG and Kylian Mbappe, even with Neymar absent. Another humbling in Europe may not undo the good work Koeman has done but it would serve as a painful reminder to Messi of past failures and ground to make up.
A positive result could do the opposite, providing affirmation of steps already taken and evidence that a move even to the richest clubs would bring no guarantees. Most importantly, there is an opportunity to rubberstamp what Koeman has started and to confirm the growing sense of a club slowly rebuilding again.
With presidential elections due next month, the reality is Koeman may not see this transition through but Messi can decide if his role in any revival will be fleeting or more fundamental. “There is only one person who can choose his future and it is him,” said Koeman. “I would like him to stay for many more years and I’m trying to make sure he is happy like he is now. But his future is in his hands.” – AFP