We are watching the decline of the best football player in history in real-time; it is going to be painful. Lionel Messi was sent off for the first time in his Barcelona career against Athletic Club in the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday as his team fell to a 3-2 extra-time defeat, and the cracks of his frustration are starting to show.
His frustration in Seville came from a game in which he found no opportunity to make an impact, which saw him shut out by Athletic’s gritty defence and then quite literally blocked out by Asier Villalibre before he shoved the Basque forward to the ground to earn his red card.
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But there is also wider frustration at the club’s state, without a president and with elections delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Barcelona are fallen giants, mentally weak and with crumbling foundations, including Messi himself. There was also frustration because Messi himself knows he is starting to lose his powers, the qualities and talent that took him to football’s peak and kept him there for a decade.
Next summer he will be 34, and it clear that his best days are behind him. He tried to leave in the summer and head to a team where he would not need to be the man who does everything but was not allowed to. It will not be an instant shift from god to ‘just’ good. Messi started 2021 in spectacular form, with four goals and an assist in three La Liga games, including a brace not two weeks ago against Athletic themselves. This season, though, looks more and more likely to be his final hurrah.
Messi is renowned for keeping a cool head, and it was strange to see him lash out at Villalibre, even though a reverse angle later showed it was more of a shove than a punch. During Cristiano Ronaldo’s last few years in Spain, he would commit this type of offence multiple times a season, often frustrated because Real Madrid was left in the shade by Barcelona domestically, while he also felt his own presence and abilities changing, like Messi now.
The Portugal superstar managed to convert himself into a killer inside the penalty area, meaning it no longer mattered that he could not beat a man like he used to. Ronaldo was also fortunate VAR was not in place at the time, with Messi’s moment of indiscretion caught by the video referee and quickly acted on by on-field official Gil Manzano.
Because it was a push, not a punch, Messi will likely get a two-game ban instead of the four-plus matches being touted in some quarters, which might not be the worst thing for him. He played 120 minutes having come into the game nursing a hamstring problem that kept him out of the semi-final win over Real Sociedad. As he ages, managing his minutes becomes imperative if you want him at his very best.
Both Ronald Koeman and Antoine Griezmann were asked about Messi’s red card after the game, and both were careful not to criticise him. “I can understand what Messi did,” explained manager Koeman.”I don’t know how many times they fouled him, and it’s normal to react when they keep trying to foul you as a player who is looking to dribble with the ball, but I need to see it again properly.”
Griezmann, meanwhile, took a leaf out of former Arsenal coach and his French compatriot Arsene Wenger’s book, saying that he didn’t see the incident. Pussyfooting around Messi is something that has been done in Barcelona for many years, and when you do not, there are consequences. Former director Pere Gratacos paid the price with his head when he said Messi’s team-mates were part of the reason he was so good, back in 2017.
However, this is a year of transition and a changing of the guard, potentially a serious one if Messi decides to leave in the summer when his contract expires. It is important for him to make sure he does not impact negatively on the team because of his frustration.
In his bones, he knows this Barcelona side are not favourites for any trophy and will find it tricky to lift silverware this season, but it is hard for him to accept that on another level, given the success he has grown accustomed to at Camp Nou, and brought the club himself.
The key will be in focusing on the positives, like the partnership he is forging with 18-year-old midfielder Pedri, a player whom he can teach valuable lessons and shape the future of. Messi will still bring Barcelona fans and the football world joy this season, but brace yourself for the fall because it is happening as we speak.