An unhappy Lionel Messi means writing is on the wall for Quique Setien at Barcelona
Argentine has been unusually loud and clear with his frustrations in recent months – and that was before rivals Real Madrid took Barca's La Liga crown
Lionel Messi looked around Camp Nou last Thursday night and saw Barcelona’s season summed up.
The towering grandstands were empty, for reasons beyond the control of the club. But the trophy room was being emptied of one important piece of silverware. Madrid had just won La Liga, which had been housed at Barca since 2017-18.
Messi had earlier looked up and down the teamsheet ahead of what was Barca’s last home game of the season in la Liga – when they needed to beat Osasuna and hope Madrid dropped points against Villarreal to take the title race to Sunday’s 38th and final matchday – and seen gaps spaces
where allies used to be.
There was no Luis Suarez, his closest friend and most productive striking partner, in the starting XI; no Jordi Alba, whose mastery of the left flank has irrigated so many paths to goal for Messi.
There was no Sergio Busquets, whose command of the base of midfield is one of the lasting souvenirs of the peak Barcelona of Pep Guardiola’s management, now almost a decade ago.
Arturo Vidal, the warrior from Chile whom Messi has learned to appreciate for his gumption, had also been left out.
And Barcelona were wretched on Thursday. They fell behind to Osasuna, needed a Messi free-kick to equalise and then lost 2-1.
They knew La Liga was all but over even before their lifeless defeat but to go down with such whimper alarmed and angered the captain.
Messi’s verdict would be cutting. “We didn’t want or expect to finish La Liga this way,” he said, “but reflects the course of the whole year. We’ve been inconsistent, weak and we’ve been a team that, if you take us on with intensity and desire you can make it easy.”
He sounded like a man who will be relieved when the final whistle sounds at Alaves on Sunday, and Barcelona’s trophy-less domestic campaign is officially over.
Messi has made little secret, either, of the fact he no longer sees many allies on the coaching staff at Barcelona, who appointed Quique Setien as manager in January, to replace two-times Liga winner Ernesto Valverde. “From January to now, things have gone very badly,” said the captain.
When Valverde was abruptly sacked, Barcelona were at the top of the table.
They were also in first place when football was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, but it is very hard for Setien not to interpret Messi’s commentary as a reflection on his short tenure.
“There are things we agree on and things we don’t agree on,” Setien said yesterday of his captain, acknowledging that parachuting into Barcelona mid-season, after a long career that had never previously taken him to a club with ambitions to win league titles had presented special challenges.
“In this dressing-room there are players who have been winning everything for 15 years,” said the beleaguered Setien. “So it is completely different. Of course there have been moments where problems need solving.”
And the person pointing out the problems, more often than not, tends to be Messi.
He criticised the club’s recruitment back in the autumn when he suggested more effort might have been made to bring Neymar, with whom Messi formed a productive partnership and who was part of the last Barcelona forward line to win the Champions League in 2015, back to the club from PSG.
Messi then publicly called out sports director Eric Abidal for having indicated that the players had stopped responding positively to Valverde. It was not true, Messi said loud and clear.
Come March, vexed negotiations with the board over how to manage pay cuts during the shutdown ended with Messi countering what he and senior players thought were misleading briefings from Barcelona executives. “We as players are always the first to do what we can to help the club,” he said.
Messi, in short, has never been more vocal in all his time as Barcelona's great icon. He has seldom sounded so pessimistic, either, about where this Barca sit in the game’s hierarchy.
If they do not raise their game by next month, when the Champions League resumes, “we will not beat Napoli”, Messi concluded as he looked back over their collapsed defence of the Spanish title. Barcelona are drawing 1-1 with Napoli halfway through their last-16 tie.
Whether Setien is still in charge for the rescheduled home leg, on August 8, looks in real doubt.
That Messi will still be at Barcelona in September is not. But whether he can stomach more than one further season as limp as 2019-20 is the question that preys on many minds at Camp Nou.
Updated: July 19, 2020 07:15 AM