The end of the Messi-anic era at FC Barcelona

Many a Barca fan would have been lulled into a bubble of complacency following the team’s recent string of good performances in the La Liga - 7 straight wins and most recently a comprehensive drubbing of Alaves 5-1.

33 minutes into the game at PSG yesterday at Camp Nou, that bubble sprung a leak; 20 minutes into the second half the bubble had not just been deflated but also shredded by the genius of a 22 year old superstar Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe came, saw and conquered - pure and simple. He put on a display that definitely reminded one of a 22 year old Messi. His first goal where he maneuvered so brilliantly in a tight space and had the presence of mind to shoot high was sensational. Even though the teams went into the tunnel all even, the tension and nervous on the faces of the Barca players was palpable. The heated exchange between Griezmann and Pique at the half time summed up the fear Barca felt for what was to come. Mbappe’s  second and third goals just showed how good a forward he is - he timed his runs perfectly and was exactly in the right place and then managed to finish with clinical precision. Take a bow, young man, this was definitely your night. It was fitting that my 9 year old son who was watching alongside me, was always cheering for Mbappe. He is the superstar for the new generation, the Patrick Mahomes to Messi’s Tom Brady. In fact if one went back 11 years Messi was similarly clinical at Camp Nou when Barca dismantled Stuttgart - scoring a brace - and putting on a dazzling display that until not so long ago one could only associate with Messi.

One could always hope for  a magical comeback like they did against Granada in the Copa Del Rey. Alas PSG is not Granada. In fact the last 3 games, Barca have played against UCL winners, they have conceded three goals - to Juventus in the group stage back in December; to Real Madrid in the El Classico back in October and now to PSG. Perhaps the players on the pitch knew that too because there was a saddening inevitability about the third and fourth goals. While the Barca defense clearly was overrun, the offense was just as uninspiring. There seemed to be only one path forward-  from Busquets to Messi to Dembele and poor Dembele tried hard all game but simply ran out of ideas and steam. Barring one brilliant run by Griezmann where he unfortunately shot just wide of the post, there was not a single offensive run of any potency from the left. Does anyone remember anything of note that Alba did yesterday? 

Last night marked the end of an era at FC Barcelona. This was Barcelona’s first home loss at the Camp Nou in the knockout stage of the UCL since 2007 - hint hint, the beginning of the Messi-anic era. Mbappe’s hat trick was the first hattrick against Barcelona in the UCL in 24 years - the last one was by Andriy Shevchenko in 1997, when Messi was still in Rosario. Barring an absolutely incredible miracle at Parc des Princes, that would rival the 6-1 win back in 2017, Barca will find themselves out of the UCL after the round of 16. The last time that happened was 14 years ago. 

When it was all over, the questions flowed fast and furious. Has Messi played his last UCL game at the Camp Nou in a Barca jersey? Where does he go from here? How long will it take to rebuild this great club and what are some of the bold decisions that will need to be made. 

While no one can ever imagine what goes on inside that brilliant mind of Messi, we can all speculate freely. One would have to assume that Messi will now want to move on from Barcelona and in the few years he has left, maximize his chances of winning another Champions League trophy or two. After all that is the prize that matters. Barcelona’s financial troubles are now well documented and with their complicated governance structure that makes it well nigh impossible to attract outside investors it will be very hard for Messi to renew his contract at an attractive level nor is it likely that Barcelona will be able to spend big on acquiring big new stars. Unless he is overcome by pangs of guilt for the loyalty he has always felt for Barcelona, the champion in him will definitely want to move on. PSG seems to be the easiest place to make that happen. They were runners up last year, are looking good to make another deep run this year and in Neymar and Mbappe already have a sensational forward line where Messi would fit into nicely. The friendship Neymar shares with Messi is well known and there is no doubt Messi would be welcomed with open arms both by the Brazilan and his fellow Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino. With their middle Eastern benefactors, PSG also have the deep pockets to be able to afford Messi. Manchester City which is the other club Messi has been linked to, because of the Guardiola connection, look far from the finished product. Aguero, Sterling Messi will not strike the same fear in opposing teams hearts as Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi. So that's settled then!

As for Barcelona, Koeman struck the right note yesterday managing down expectations and talking about the long run. In Frenkie De Jong they have a great leader for the future and the young core they have started to assemble around Pedri, Puig, Araujo, Moriba holds great potential. The French connection of Griezmann and Dembele holds promise up top; Griezmann has certainly grown in confidence after Suarez’s exit and Dembele is finally stringing together an injury free season after a long time. The time has come for them to be decisive and part ways with Messi, Pique, Busquets and Alba. All four have been incredible players and been part of this incredible decade and a half run of success at the club. It is time to graciously and profusely thank them for all their contributions and move the club firmly into the new decade.   

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