|Lionel Messi had that aimless look again Saturday after El Clasico, searching for plenty of answers that aren’t there. Photo: Luis Gene/AFP|
“Crisis” is an overused term in soccer. Especially, it seems, in Spanish soccer, where a handful of competing daily sports newspapers stoke the fires after a loss or two to create a perpetual tension. It’s why Pep Guardiola felt he needed to take a year-long sabbatical after managing Barcelona for four years. It’s part of why Zinedine Zidane quit his Real Madrid job, before returning nine months later. The pressure never lets up, the power battles just don’t stop.
Now, after Real’s 3-1 away victory over blood rivals Barcelona on Saturday in the season’s first El Clasico, Barca really does face a crisis. Several of them, in fact. A first-ever Clasico played without fans had muted expectations.
Typically, this game is a collision of tribalism, a struggle between two of the biggest and richest clubs in the world but also between the Spanish capital and the Catalan region with an unabated secessionist impulse. In an empty Nou Camp, there would be none of the atmosphere or vitriol. What’s more, this was the first time since 2003 that both teams came into the Clasico off a La Liga loss, per Opta.
Zidane and his managerial counterpart Ronald Koeman already faced pressure before kickoff, even though Zidane has added three Champions League trophies to the club’s résumé as manager and finally delivered a La Liga title last season. Because he had lost at home to little Cadis and was then upset 3-2 in the Champions League against a Shakhtar Donetsk side that was without almost its entire starting lineup.
Koeman, has only just arrived, taking over a team already facing existential questions after the 8-2 elimination to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Lionel Messi’s attempt to leave thereafter. Koeman’s Barcelona had won just two of four La Liga games, and now two of five. As these things go in El Clasico, all is now forgiven for Zidane whereas Koeman’s outlook has turned dire. His problems are manifold.
The primary crisis, of course, is Barca’s league form. It remains in 10th place, and before the matchday is out Sevilla could dump it into 11th. In the rush to clear out a load of high-earning veterans and friends of Messi — Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal — in an attempt to refresh the side with young and new talent during the offseason, the results have dropped off a cliff. Barca isn’t the sort of club that’s in the habit of firing managers midseason.
It did so last year, replacing the perfectly competent Ernesto Valverde with Quique Setien with disastrous results, but before that it hadn’t pulled the trigger in the middle of a campaign since firing Louis van Gaal in 2003. It might now do so in back-to-back seasons after Koeman quickly alienated Messi and, last week, had the audacity to question his form publicly.
Then there’s Messi, the sentient, slow-moving crisis himself. Messi only remains at his childhood club because forcing an exit through a contested clause in his contract would have turned litigious and lengthy and ugly and pricey. He doesn’t want to be there. Keeping players against their will is generally a bad idea. Forcing the sport’s greatest-ever player to remain — fighting to keep his team at the top as he ages inexorably yet has less and less help, looking like a man fighting the onset of high tide with a single mop — makes him appear like a captive of an increasingly desperate club.
Against Real, Messi set up Barca’s lone goal with a tape-measured ball over the top in the path of Jordi Alba. Alba then cut back for Ansu Fati to finish cleanly. But Messi once again looked like the only real menace on Barca’s side. And this may be a heresy, but at age 33, Messi isn’t as hard to defend as he used to be. That’s especially true now that he, in Koeman’s system, is doing more of the playmaking than ever before, covering much more ground to join up with the final ball of an attack.
The final crisis is that of La Liga itself, which no longer has a claim to being the world’s best league. That is now quite clearly the Premier League. And the German Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A are genuine threats to the Spanish circuit’s status. At the moment, Barca and Real, La Liga’s flagship teams, aren’t the clubs where the world’s very best players congregate any longer.
Cristiano Ronaldo is long-gone from Madrid and was never replaced. Neither team made a signature signing this summer. Barca’s last mega-signing, Antoine Griezmann, was benched on Saturday, before coming in as part of a desperate triple-substitution.
Instead, Koeman started a pair of 17-year-olds up front, flanking Messi. For that matter, Real’s priciest signings of last summer, Luka Jovic and Eder Militao, were both on the bench as well. There’s plenty of young talent in both teams, but also a lot of veterans whose primes are quickly slipping away. But they remain in central roles, giving those sides the air of teams stuck in the past.
When the game ended, with the hated arch rivals deservedly prevailing 3-1 and perhaps meriting even more, Messi struck a pose that has become familiar in the last few seasons. Hands on hips, one foot slightly ahead of the other, staring off at nothing in particular. It’s a look that has become synonymous with Barca’s undeniable decline.
Here stood Messi, donning a jersey he no longer wanted to wear, caught in the overlapping crises of his own career, of the club that won’t let him go, of the league that is no longer the place to be.