The Lionel Messi and Barcelona marriage has been synonymous with European success for more than a decade. From the days of tactical leaders Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique in charge, there was always an expectation for the Blaugrana to make a deep run in the Champions League and potentially win it for the good part of a decade. Four of the five UCL titles won in club history have come since 2006, including two in a five-year span.
Barcelona are headed for a five-year UCL title drought if they crash out against Napoli on Saturday (watch on CBS Sports Network and CBS All Access). Add the fact that Messi and the club have had a fractured relationship as of late and the squad isn't getting any younger, it's safe to say that they're playing to keep the blueprint in tact. The window might be closing, and after losing the Spanish league to rival Real Madrid, whatever happens in the Champions League in August could go a long way in determining whether Messi will be a part of the future plans.
Five years does not feel like a long time removed from Champions League glory, but for a impatient fan base that is almost never satisfied with anything other titles, five years feels like ages ago -- especially after the string of cruel European failures over the years.
The Champions League letdowns
- 2015-16 UCL quarterfinals: Stunning upset to Atletico Madrid after winning the first leg 2-1
- 2016-17 UCL quarterfinals: Barcelona were shut out in each leg en route to a 3-0 aggregate elimination to Juventus
- 2017-18 UCL quarterfinals: Barcelona win 4-1 at home vs. Roma, only to collapse 3-0 in the second leg in Italy
- 2018-19 UCL semifinals: Barcelona blow 3-0 first-leg lead vs. Liverpool and suffer a massive 4-0 collapse in the second leg at Anfield
Messi has never played a professional club match for anyone other than Barcelona, and as rumors swirl as to whether he will stay or go, the future is cloudy from the outside. Within the last year, we've seen a lot happen.
A year of ups and downs ... but mostly downs
- October 2019: Messi talks about why he nearly left Barca after his tax issues.
- January 2020: Ernesto Valverde is sacked (despite sitting in first place in La Liga) and replaced by Quique Setien from Real Betis.
- February 2020: Messi and sporting director Eric Abidal trade verbal jabs after the club is eliminated from Copa del Rey. Messi is reportedly frustrated with leaks that paint him responsible for managerial changes.
- Late February 2020: Barcelonasettle for 1-1 draw to Napoli in first leg of Champions League round of 16 in Italy.
- March 2020: Barcelona lose 2-0 to Real Madrid in El Clasico before COVID-19 pauses the season. The loss puts Barca one point behind Real for first in the league. During the shutdown, the players were forced to take a 70 percent pay cut.
- June 2020: Video surfaces of Messi ignoring Setien's assistant during a match. Setien admits friction between the players and says for the sake of the team they all have to come together.
- Early July 2020: Messi reportedly ceases contract talks and no longer wishes to be with Barcelona when his deal expires in 2021.
- Mid-July 2020: Messi calls out the club and players for squandering La Liga title to Real Madrid, says they were "inconsistent" and "weak" and hints at a potential early Champions League exit. Setien says he won't resign.
The Argentine is a player who is happy when he wins, and barring a four straight wins in August, he is staring at a title-less season for the first time since 2013-14. None of the recent sting of events scream happiness for Messi.
The rise in friction and tension has come from a variety of factors, but plenty of it boils down to the lack of success on the European stage and the lack of finding a proper manager. Valverde didn't work, and neither has Setien.
So what can they do they keep him happy after all these years? While winning the Champions League this season is not impossible, what they do for next season, already a month away, is monumental.
It all starts with building a squad around Messi and not misfiring on transfers, which has been the theme for a while. Ousmane Dembele has not worked out, and Philippe Coutinho certainly didn't either. The jury is still out on Antoine Griezmann, but it hasn't been convincing.
Then there is also the 2021 Barcelona presidential election set for next summer. The club will elect a president for the next six years, with one of the candidates being Victor Font, who wants Messi's friend and former teammate Xavi to lead the project as coach. That familiarity is appealing to Messi. Xavi did just sign a contract extension with Al Sadd in Qatar, but the expectation would be for him to make the move if the job were to become available.
Having a coach that has that kind of bond with Messi -- along with a fresh, new face as president to lead a new era -- could theoretically help smooth things over. When speaking to people at the club, the message is all similar. They "can't imagine Barca without him." Those close to Messi also can't see it either.
The view from Messi's side
"Everything depends on Saturday. I think if Barca advance, there won't be problems," an Argentine source close to the Messi family told CBS Sports. "We have to see how far they get. If they don't advance, the first thing that happens is the coach is gone, obviously.
"What they want is a team built around Messi, and for the team to truly contend next season, which is the main goal. They haven't won anything this season. Losing to Napoli would be a disaster. But I think he will stay to the end. He is comfortable at his house in Castell de Fels, and I don't think he will abandon that place to move anywhere."
Winning cures all in this sport, and it's been far too long for a club like Barcelona since they last reached the summit. While the next season -- again, only roughly a month away -- will be key as to whether Messi stays or goes, the future is Saturday.
If they advance, the dream continues. If they crash out, the speculation will only grow. How much pressure can one of the greatest players of all time truly take?