Rarely a Barcelona game passes without Lionel Messi reaching some sort of milestone. It was only a few weeks ago that the Argentine surpassed Pele’s historic record for the most goals for a single club, but Sunday’s Spanish Supercopa final saw Messi experience something for the very first time - a red card while wearing blaugrana.
Never before, not in 753 appearances, had Messi been sent off in a game for Barcelona, but there was no arguing over the off-the-ball swing at Asier Villalibre in the final moments of the extra time defeat to Athletic Club. It was the act of a player frustrated with his current situation and with the mess that surrounds him at the Camp Nou.
Messi had actually been more like his old self recently. The smile had returned to the 33-year-old’s face as he scored seven goals in seven games before injury sidelined in the week leading up to the Spanish Supercopa final. Pedri’s emergence at Barcelona, and the relationship he has struck up with Messi, has led many to suggest the Argentine could be persuaded to stick around at the club to act as a mentor to the teenager.
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Ronald Koeman has been careful not to over-work a player who can no longer play every minute of every game. Messi, for instance, was withdrawn after an hour of the 4-0 win over Granada in order to give the Argentine a much-needed rest. After a rocky start, the understanding between Koeman and Messi has been an amicable one of late.
That Messi started against Athletic Club proved where the true power lies in the Barcelona dressing room. The 33-year-old wasn’t anywhere near fit enough to play 90 minutes, never mind the 120 minutes he ultimately had to play. Messi could barely break into a sprint, he was so unfit. His only purpose in the Barca team was to pass and shoot. Koeman should have left Messi out, but the fact he didn’t reveals a lot about how much autonomy the Dutchman really has.
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Of course, all this happened in a week marked by the news that the long-awaited Barcelona presidential election postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Messi’s future at the club is very much linked to the race to be the next Camp Nou chief, with the 33-year-old keen for assurances over the direction Barca are heading in.
January 24, when the Barcelona presidential election was originally scheduled for, was likely a date Messi had circled in his diary. The outcome of the vote would have allowed the Argentine to make plans beyond the summer, when his current contract at the Camp Nou will expire. It would have provided some much-needed clarity for all at Barcelona. Instead, Barca continue to tread water.
This is possibly on Messi’s mind at the moment. It would go some way to explaining why he was so lacking in focus against Athletic Club. He has been free to talk to other clubs since the turn of the year and the longer uncertainty lingers around Barcelona the more likely it seems Messi will be on his way at the end of the season.
Lionel Messi passe devant Ronald Koeman après son expulsion
Image credit: Getty Images
Sunday’s red card, and the accompanying three-match suspension, means Messi will have some time alone with his thoughts over the coming week or two. The 33-year-old’s frustration at off-the-field issues often surfaces in the form of on-the-field petulance - see how Messi was sent off for Argentina against Chile at the 2019 Copa America amid public grievances with the country’s national federation.
Given his recent good form, it might be unfair to read too much into what happened against Athletic Club, but with Messi so closed off as a communicator we only have his on-field conduct and body language to draw from. Sunday’s red card suggested Messi’s outlook isn’t quite as bright as some of his recent performances have hinted at.
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