Fired up but falling apart - is it now or never for Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the Champions League?
The 33-year-old has cut a frustrated figure at the Nou Camp amid signs of a crumbling empire. Can they strike back in style with victory on the grandest stage?
Long gone are the days they appeared a fixture in the final four of the competition; since last winning the trophy in 2015, they have reached the semi-finals just once, running afoul of an unforgettable night at Anfield on their way to an unceremonious, unscripted exit last year.
Such returns may be satisfactory for fans of other teams around Europe. Not Barcelona.
Credit where credit is due. A decent Barcelona performance was enough to see off Napoli in the round of 16 with relative ease despite some strange refereeing decisions. But Barcelona face a far more daunting task next as they take on the favourites to win the tournament - Bayern Munich.
Blessed by the talents of the finest player ever to grace the game in Lionel Messi, the Blaugrana’s poor returns have seen his peak years go unrewarded in European competition – a misery further compounded by arch rivals Real Madrid’s record-breaking Champions League successes spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo.
A more enigmatic character than his old adversary CR7, Messi once preferred to let his football do the talking but even the quietly-spoken Argentinean appears to have reached the end of his tether after a season that saw the Catalan giants surrender their league title.
Speaking after a 2-1 defeat at home to Osasuna in mid-July, the 33-year-old unleashed his frustration in an uncharacteristic tirade on Spanish TV.
“We didn’t expect to finish in this way, but it sums up the year for us,” he said.
“We are a weak team who can be beaten with enough intensity and enthusiasm. We have lost a lot of points which we shouldn’t have done [and] been very inconsistent.
If we want to fight for the Champions League, a lot has to change
- Lionel Messi
“We need to be self-critical, starting with the players but also across the entire club. We are Barcelona, and we are obliged to win every game.
“If we want to fight for the Champions League, a lot has to change. Like this, we will lose to Napoli.”
“We need a bit of calm now, today was a step in the right direction,” the club captain told reporters following an emphatic victory that saw him provide two goals and an assist.
But how long will Messi’s patience last?
Now in the twilight years of his remarkable career, the chance to reclaim club football’s most illustrious prize remains a burning desire, only intensified by the nature of Barcelona’s recent exits.
First, they sacrificed a 4-1 first leg advantage to Roma in the 2018 quarter-finals, losing 3-0 in the Italian capital as Kostas Manolas’ 82nd-minute header sealed a dramatic late win for the home side.
That was swiftly followed by last season’s 4-0 drubbing by Liverpool, during which the visitors conceded three second-half goals to crash out in spectacular fashion at Anfield.
It was just the fourth time a team had overturned a three-or-more goal deficit from the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie to progress; the third was the previous season’s defeat to Roma.
Now in Lisbon, Barcelona will have to navigate a tricky availability crisis that saw the illustrious club only able to name five substitutes – including two goalkeepers – on the bench against Alaves three weeks ago.
The Bayern game undoubtedly presents a stiff test of Barca’s desire – one that Messi will be hoping his recent rollicking can help prise a victory from as they look to avoid a trophy-less season for the first time since 2008.
With subsequent ties being played over a single leg in a sudden death, World-Cup style play-off bracket, Barcelona may benefit from the changed format having produced dominant performances in the first leg ties against both Roma and Liverpool.
“The elimination against Roma was a sh** that we sent ourselves,” Messi said, suggesting his team needed to copy Real Madrid and find a way to win ugly to reclaim the Champions League.
“Madrid has something only they have… playing badly and winning. It costs us a lot more… we have to be much superior to win.”
It speaks to his desperation to lift the famous old trophy one last time that Messi, the poster child for the beautiful game, must plead with his side to win by any means necessary.
Can the Blaugrana fulfil their ageing captain’s wishes against Bayern Munich to book their place in the semi-finals?
Find out exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD on Friday 14 August from at 7pm, when Barcelona take on Bayern Munich.
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