Barça crisis compounded by cup catastrophe
Just about everything is going wrong for the Catalan giants lately, with Messi even firing a warning shot to the club hierarchy
At the end of a tense and sometimes frantic cup quarter final clash, very recent history had repeated itself, with Athletic Bilbao notching an injury time winner against Barcelona just as they had done on the opening day of the season.
That time it was a spectacular Aritz Aduriz bicycle kick to win the three points, this time it was a deft Iñaki Williams header making minimal but decisive contact with the ball to guide it into the far corner.
Barcelona can take some solace in the fact that they played well and dominated large parts of the game in a difficult away ground to travel to. Eleven shots, five of which on target, and 68% possession (stats from Flashscore) indicate it wasn’t a terrible performance, but certainly compounds the idea that Quique Setién’s side struggle to create clear cut opportunities and finish off chances.
Ansu Fati and Leo Messi both had good chances stopped by Athletic netminder Unai Simon, and Barça could legitimately feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty in the first half for a challenge of Frenkie de Jong.
Messi-Abibal civil war
Nevertheless, they’re out of the cup, and the club is seemingly in all-out civil war.
The week began with director of football Eric Abidal telling the media the idea to fire Valverde came from him “smelling” something was wrong, that unnamed players weren’t working for the manager or the team. “Lots of players were not satisfied and nor did they work much,” he said.
This prompted an almost immediate reaction from Leo Messi, who posted on his Instagram stories, that despite not enjoying making such public comments, he felt Abidal should have named names, rather than tarring all players with the same brush.
Rumours circled that the French former Barça defender would be fired for the discontent among the team (and Messi, above all else) he caused, but in the end it appears as though he’ll be allowed to stay in his post.
Poor play, poor squad management
This internal disruption comes at a bad time for the club. With Setién in the job about a month, certain patterns in the team’s play are starting to become clear. Lots of possession and passing, but little penetration, and very few clear chances to score goals.
Striker Luis Suárez, pivotal to Barcelona’s attack, will miss most of the rest of the season after having knee surgery. Carles Pérez, was sold and not replaced. The manager said the return of Ousmane Dembélé from injury would be like their new signing just days before he suffered another injury setback which will see him also miss the rest of the campaign.
To add to these worries, Ivan Rakitic is clearly playing unhappily as the club tried to force him out numerous times over the last year, Arturo Vidal is involved in a legal wrangle with the club over alleged unpaid bonuses, and Gerard Piqué injured himself while hauling down Iñaki Williams against Athletic Bilbao.
Quique Setién's record so far at the helm doesn't make for pretty reading, with highly laboured wins over Granada and third-tier Ibiza preceding a loss to Valencia knocking them off the top of the table. A relatively flat victory over Levante at home left something to be desired too, and a tie with Napoli in the Champions League first knockout round looming, culés have every right to be worried.
Could Messi leave?
The entire mess has culminated into every culé’s biggest fear moving from absolute impossibility to only an unlikelihood - Messi could possibly leave the club.
The Argentine captain has a clause in his contract that allows him to move for free if he communicates his desire to do so before May.
Messi rarely does interviews, but when he does, it’s because he has something important to say. Earlier on this campaign, he spoke to Catalan radio station Rac1 and made it known that he already considered leaving Catalonia a number of years ago when state authorities were pursuing him for alleged unpaid taxes.
Of course, Messi is settled well with his family in Barcelona, and has young children in school. It would take a massive shift in attitude to convince the club's all-time record goalscorer to leave.
With his old pal Pep Guardiola in desperate need of a refresh of his Manchester City team, and the pair eager to work together once more if they could make it happen, a move could be something that favours the player and the manager, but certainly not FC Barcelona.