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What lies ahead as Lionel Messi approaches the twilight of his illustrious career

FC Barcelona vs Levante UD - La Liga Santander
FC Barcelona vs Levante UD - La Liga Santander
Purple Gaffer
CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 21 Dec 2020, 01:41 IST
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Lionel Messi is arguably the most skilled player to have ever graced the game of football. Talent and singular skill-wise, there can be no opposition to that claim; however, the only major criticism of the Argentine is the lack of international trophies after reaching three showpiece finals with La Albiceleste.

Furthermore, Lionel Messi has also been blamed for coming up short in his role as a captain at both club and country, failing to inspire his men at the biggest of stages.

Apart from the handful of blemishes that every great footballer in the game tends to accumulate, the 6-time Ballon D'or winner can play the beautiful game with such finesse and diversity that fans are mesmerised every time he has the ball at his feet.

Lionel Messi's achievements in the game are unparalleled, be it his individual trophy haul of six Ballon D'ors, one FIFA Golden Ball and six European Golden Shoes or team honours like the Olympic Gold, the sextuple of trophies in 2009 and ten La Liga titles in a career that is still far away from over.

Barcelona and Lionel Messi

Juventus vs FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Final
Juventus vs FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Final

Ever since Charly Rexach got Lionel Messi's signature on the now-infamous paper napkin, the fate of Barcelona and its prodigal son was determined.

Over the next 20 years, the Catalan city would go on to witness greatness like never before. That says a lot about Lionel Messi, as the same fan base had witnessed the likes of Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and the Spaniard Luis Suarez ply their trades in Catalonia.

Lionel Messi's two-decade-long association has been a fruitful one for the club that has yielded ten league titles, four Champions League titles and six Copa Del Rey trophies among others domestic and continental honours.

It’s been mostly smooth sailing for club and player until now. However, after securing a historic second treble in 2015 led by the famous 'MSN', Barcelona have regressed.

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The Catalans have been on the wrong end of famous comebacks repeatedly, with usually the manager at the time coming under fire. The fact that arch-rivals Real Madrid have won an unprecedented three back-to-back Champions League titles doesn't help Barcelona's cause.

However, what finally made Lionel Messi vocal about his desire to leave the club was the horrendous 2019-20 season: a season that saw the Blaugrana end the campaign trophyless, ceding the league title to a depleted Madrid side while the last straw came in the form of an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

A host of problems on and off the pitch have been cited as reasons for this downfall, most of which are attributable to mismanagement and lack of foresight and planning at the board level. However, the bottom line is that the once history-making Barcelona side is experiencing a transition, a botched one at that.

The current season has provided further confirmation of these claims, as Lionel Messi's Barcelona sit in a lowly fifth place in the league, eight points off the league leaders.

Lionel Messi and the Cristiano Ronaldo paradox

FC Barcelona vs Juventus: Group G - UEFA Champions League
FC Barcelona vs Juventus: Group G - UEFA Champions League

Over in Turin, Lionel Messi's eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo is thriving in a new league, with a fresh batch of players, at a club whose situation was not too different from Barcelona's at the start of the current 2020-21 season.

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After cementing his status as the most influential player in the rich history of the Los Merengues, the Portuguese skipper ended his time in Spain to embark on a new adventure at Juventus at the ripe old age of 33 while Lionel Messi stayed put at Barcelona.

So far, Cristiano Ronaldo's decision to head to il bel paese has been fruitful; he has turned out over 100 times in the famous Bianconeri colours and has scored 81 goals. The striker also boasts the most goals by a Juventus player in a single season, most goals in consecutive games for the club and the fastest to reach 50 goals in Serie A.

On the team front, although he has 'failed' in Europe, Juventus have won back-to-back Serie A titles since signing the mercurial number seven. All this will only add to Lionel Messi's feeling of regretting staying in a dysfunctional Barcelona setup.

Is Lionel Messi 'happy' at Barcelona?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - 2019-20 UEFA Champions League Quarter-final
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich - 2019-20 UEFA Champions League Quarter-final

The 20/21 season has seen a massive dip in the Argentine's attacking output, as Lionel Messi has scored only five goals in 12 La Liga games.

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He has looked a pale shadow of the player who finished top scorer in the league in the last seven seasons. Last season, Lionel Messi also broke Thierry Henry's record of 20 league assist in a single season in the top five European leagues.

These stats suggest that Lionel Messi's poor performances are not due to time catching up with the player but perhaps his unwillingness to perform for an institution that has held him hostage after serving the club for the better part of this century.

Apart from his underwhelming stats this season, Lionel Messi has often looked lost and dejected whenever Barcelona have come up against decent opposition and has not bothered to take the initiative expected of a captain.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup finalist's commitment to pressing opposition is also absent. That was evident in the game against Alaves where Lionel Messi lost the ball an astonishing 27 times.

Although there was the hint of a second wind post their 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Juventus, all signs point towards a successive trophy-less campaign for the Catalan outfit.

A happy Messi is one who takes the initiative, an initiative to create attacks, to press, to come back from behind, to producing never-before-seen moments, to perform at the otherworldly standard we hold him to. At 33 years old, it is surely his final chance to give one last try to all that elite level football has to offer and for this, he most certainly will have to pursue pastures new.

Lionel Messi's 'slow' evolution in the face of changing football dynamics

Liverpool vs Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi-Final: Second Leg
Liverpool vs Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi-Final: Second Leg

At a glance, at the start of the 2020s, football seems very similar to what it was at the dawn of the previous decade.

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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are at the top of the world, Bayern Munich are dominating Germany, AC Milan are headed towards the Scudetto, and Jose Mourinho is building something great at a club that has been dormant for long. But a closer look will tell us that nothing is the same; football, as we know it, has changed for good.

The excitement surrounding tiki-taka has been replaced by high-throttle football, False nines are out of fashion and wing-backs are the new hybrid position in vogue. Teenagers are no longer assessed by their age but by their talent, as more of them have found their way into the starting lineups of Europe's elite. The methods of Pep Guardiola and Vicente Del Bosque have long been discarded, making way for the likes of Hansi Flick and Jurgen Klopp's.

4-3-3 and 3-5-2 have been replaced by the old school and ever-reliable 4-2-3-1; the Ozils & Isco(s) of the game have made way for more conservative and industrial number 8s like Georgio Wijnaldum and Tanguy Ndombele.

Furthermore, luxury wingers like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have also been replaced by pacey pure wingers with high defensive outputs while conventional strikers such as Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku are being preferred over more versatile options like Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez.

Overall, the evolution of the game hasn't been generous to a player like Lionel Messi, let alone the 33-year-old version of him, a player who is afforded a host of luxuries thus hampering the overall team's performance. That is something Lionel Messi will have to keep in mind when looking for a new club.

He will have to keep in mind that the club, and more importantly the league, he chooses, is accommodating of his reduced physical profile. Having a hard-working team around him and a coach willing to sacrifice certain aspects of their setup to accommodate one of the greatest talents of all time could be crucial for a player fast approaching the twilight of his playing days.

Lionel Messi's possible destinations:

So, what are the options for Lionel Messi, should be chosen to leave Barcelona at the end of the season?

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#1 Inter Milan

FC Barcelona v FC Internazionale: Group F - UEFA Champions League
FC Barcelona v FC Internazionale: Group F - UEFA Champions League

The Nerazzurri's project is underway with some of Italy's finest talent aboard the bandwagon like dynamic chairman Steven Zhang, master puppeteer sporting director Beppe Marotta or the ever-exciting Antonio Conte as gaffer.

Since Chinese ownership assumed majority control of the club in 2016, Inter Milan have gone from strength to strength. Over the past few years, the club has added the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Alexis Sanchez and Achraf Hakimi among others.

It has undoubtedly been hot and cold for Conte's side, who has repeatedly coming up short in both the league and in Europe. However, the Inter Milan project is an ambitious one and is much bigger than the individuals involved in it, all of whom are dispensable. The current side has a very good core group of players who are hardworking and in their primes, and, more importantly, could be used effectively to form a team around Lionel Messi.

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Inter Milan also have the stature to afford the Argentine's exorbitant wage demands. Furthermore, the pace of the Italian league could be much better suited to the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of today, with the latter's high-yielding tenure in Italy being evidence enough. The only stumbling block would be the state of Inter Milan currently and the man leading the team.

Conte has time and again fallen out with stars in his team owing to his infamous temper. With Lionel Messi looking for one last hurrah in Europe, he might deem Inter Milan's calibre insufficient in that aspect.

In other words, with a better man-manager like Massimiliano Allegri or Mauricio Pochetino, the Biscione could aspire to scale greater heights in association with Lionel Messi. For the player himself, Inter Milan and Serie A could prolong his stay in the top echelons of the game.

#2 Manchester City

Manchester City FC vs FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League
Manchester City FC vs FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League

It is a reunion that has often been dubbed as 'The Last Dance', derived from the popular Micheal Jordan documentary with the same name that was released earlier this year. Under Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi showed us that a few decades on from the retirements of Pele and Diego Maradona, a new ceiling of singular playing ability could be reached. The football on show was beautiful, never before seen and sadly has not been seen post the Guardiola era in Catalonia.

The City football project under Middle Eastern ownership has been very successful, as Manchester City have won a host of trophies this decade bar the Champions League. This season, however, the Sky Blues have been in decline, sitting seventh in the league after 12 games.

This turn in fortunes can be attributed to the change in football philosophy for all clubs in general, something that has already been talked about written about at length previously in this article.

This new trend of tactics has seen Jose Mourinho challenge for the league title again, just a few years after his way of football was deemed 'extinct' by fans and pundits alike. Both the entities, Lionel Messi and Manchester City, seem to have failed to move on with time, leaving their legacies in a vulnerable place.

Although Guardiola has consistently played down a reunion with his favourite forward, he desperately needs the attacker as much as Lionel Messi needs the Spaniard and Manchester City.

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There remain concerns about Lionel Messi's adaptation to the pace of the Premier League. These concerns are not farced, as many South American players have complained about the quality of life in the British island, with Lionel Messi's international teammate Angel Di Maria being one of them.

Nevertheless, Manchester City are probably Lionel Messi's best chance of securing a historic third continental treble. The Cityzens, although faltering of late, appear to be the best equipped to trouble the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich.

#3 Paris Saint Germain

FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg
FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg

The last of the lot and probably the club Lionel Messi could most likely end up at is Paris Saint Germain (PSG).

Their project is similar to that of City and Inter: rich ownership trying to build a mega-club and aspiring to challenge for a lot of trophies never before imagined. Inter are at the start of this cycle; City are well into it, and PSG seem to be stuck somewhere in the middle.

Although the Qatar-backed project started at the same time as City's, the club from Paris doesn't seem to have the same standing in the eyes of fans as the Manchester outfit. That could be due to the lack of a clear long-term plan at the club, constant changes at the board level, and the owner trying to throw everything at the wall and hoping for something to stick.

However, it would be unfair to deem the PSG project a failure. Ever since Nasser Al-Khelafi came in as president, the Parisians have won seven of the last eight French league titles, numerous domestic cup competitions and reached their maiden final in the Champions League.

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However, the major criticism of the team has been that it is too top-heavy; PSG possess two of the five best forwards in the world but are ill-equipped in other areas of the pitch.

Nevertheless, even though there are many shortcomings, PSG are in the lead to land the 6-time Ballon Dor winner at the Parc Des Princes. A plethora of factors gives PSG an advantage over other suitors such as a heavy influx of South American players within the squad like Neymar, Di Maria and Leandro Paredes, to name a few.

Further, the French league is one that is dominated by the Paris-based club, which would mean that Lionel Messi's playing time could be managed to preserve his most effective performances for the UEFA Champions League.

There are also various reports from various credible sources that this could be Thomas Tuchel's final year managing 'Les Rouge et Bleu', which means a more accomplished individual could be the PSG helm next season.

A Neymar-led PSG surprised fans across Europe by reaching the final of the most prestigious football tournament last season. Could Lionel Messi help them cross the final hurdle?

Lionel Messi and Argentina

Argentina vs Paraguay - South American Qualifiers for Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022
Argentina vs Paraguay - South American Qualifiers for Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022

This narrative has been explored a few times but never seems to get old. After coming up short in three consecutive finals in 2014, 2015 and 2016, could Lionel Messi finally guide his country to global and/or continental glory?

Of the various reasons Lionel Messi was so adamant about leaving Catalonia, one that pleasantly surprised many fans was that the multiple Pichichi trophy winner believed that having a successful club season before kicking off an international campaign with La Albiceleste would help him be in the correct mental and physical state when arriving at these tournaments. That would increase the likelihood of carrying out this Herculean task to the best of his abilities.

Although Lionel Messi might head to the Copa America in his country on the back of another trophy-less season with Barcelona, the player could have benefitted from playing in a different league before playing what could be his final FIFA World Cup outing in Qatar.

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What lies ahead for Lionel Messi?

Lionel Messi finds himself at a crossroad not only in his career but also in his personal life.

He has spent his adolescence, teenage and entire adult life within the confines of Catalonia, so a move to a different country seems alien. Until the recent turn of events, Lionel Messi had always maintained that he would 'prefer' seeing out his playing days in Barcelona, with an occasional return to his homeland being mooted.

Lionel Messi has stated that his wife and three kids have created their lives in the Comital City, which is another angle thee 33-year-old will have to keep in mind. On the sports front, a dilemma in the form of the captain abandoning the ship in the face of an imminent shipwreck could haunt the forward.

However, it is safe to say that if the Argentine wishes to add more feats to his already long list of achievements, he might finally have to leave 'home' to be able to perform to the best of his sensational abilities.

Published 21 Dec 2020, 01:41 IST
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