Messi's legacy assured but European glory is what he craves
Lionel Messi and Barcelona are fed up with watching other teams win the Champions League and are hell-bent on fixing that this season.
The end is near; it's not imminent but it’s getting closer. Lionel Messi turns 32 in June and he has started to think about his legacy. For all the talk of being the best footballer in Spain, in Europe, in the world, ever, he has had to endure watching Real Madrid winning the last three Champions League finals while Barcelona were left celebrating league and Copa Del Rey wins - not bad, of course, but not the Holy Grail either. "The Champions League is always special for what it means and we would like to win it again. We have that dream," Lionel Messi said in December when interviewed by the club and you could tell in his words that he meant it, eyes lighting up when it was mentioned before descending into cliches when discussing another potential league title.
They always felt themselves that they were a better team than Real Madrid but while their rivals were sipping champagne at Cibeles, Barcelona were sitting at home wondering how they had been knocked out once again. And that belief is not just Barcelona exceptionalism. They played Real Madrid eight times in the last three years in LaLiga and the Copa and lost just once. They beat them 4-0, 3-0, 5-1 and 3-0. In 10 games they scored 24 goals and conceded eight. They have won seven LaLiga titles in 10 years and four Copa del Reys in a row. Barcelona, by and large, are a better team than Real Madrid. But that's not how history will remember this era unless they can figure out a way to win back the Champions League.
Zinedine Zidane left Real Madrid for a couple of reasons but one of them was his inability to challenge in the league and more consistently in general. It's no small thing considering he said his best moment was winning LaLiga and his worst the defeat against Leganés in the Copa. "I can't forget our domestic campaign that easily," he said. Pep Guardiola said that the league is a better indicator of where a team’s at than the Champions League before his side played Spurs. "That's why I said many times the Premier League, for me is the most important title." Barcelona knew they were amongst the best but had failed to even break the top four in three consecutive years and it's what makes the Champions League such a frustrating and difficult competition to win.
Barcelona need to swap their idealism for pragmatism
Barcelona is a club built around an idea. The idea of total football. There is a partiality to their recruitment policy for both managers and players. One of the main requirements during the search that ultimately led them to Ernesto Valverde was that he had to have played for the club and understand how it worked and how they played. You often hear of players linked with them because they are a protype Barcelona player or they get the Barcelona way.
It was that same perfectionism and idealism that gave rise to the greatest team the world has ever seen, to Pep Guardiola and to Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi. Pure football, pure footballers. But in knockout competition it could be seen as flawed football and Barcelona felt that acutely after Manolas had scored that infamous goal, with Peter Drury saying "Beyond reason! Beyond Roman reality! And in the end, beyond Barcelona."
Messi and Barcelona are unwilling to let that happen again. He said, "we have the experience of Roma, in the Champions League, 10 bad minutes can see you getting knocked out."
Barcelona playing against their own idealism
Two of the three teams that beat them in the last two years are more dogged than they are dogmatic about playing progressive football in Atlético Madrid and Juventus. Real Madrid won the last three titles with a large dollop of luck mixed with immaculate timing and an unwillingness to be beaten and Barcelona seem to have accepted that the best team does not necessarily always win: it's the team with more guile and cunning, conserving energy when it matters least and capable of duking it out when it matters most. And, maybe more importantly, knowing the difference.
Last week in Manchester, there were questions asked about Barca’s approach with their newfound pragmatism was on full display. Grind them down away from home and drop the blade at home. Those who went to Old Trafford expecting a slashing and dashing Messi-led team saw a more cagey side.
Barcelona still think and possibly know they are the best team in Europe. But it’s no good just saying it, thinking it and expecting teams to step aside when you come to their ground.
This season, it has been said since the start that the champions league is their Everest, their raison d'être. They are on a quest against themselves to deliver the one trophy that continues to elude them. Lionel Messi isn’t concerned with just goals and winning games anymore. He’s thinking more long term. He’s concerned now with his legacy. "It's unique, special, the best thing to be playing for at club level. A totally different competition and we all want to win it," said Messi in that same interview with the club's website.
And if that means becoming slightly more pragmatic in the process then batten down the hatches. History is written by the winners, not the team that plays the most eye-catching football and Barcelona have learned that the hard way.
While there’s still time for the Barcelona Way when others matters have been seen to, expect a far edgier, savvy and pragmatic Barcelona to appear whenever you hear the Champions League hymn ahead of the semi-final against Liverpool.