Handed the mic to speak to the Camp Nou faithful for the first time as Barcelona captain, Lionel Messi made a vow. Having watched Real Madrid win the Champions League three years in a row, he pledged that he and his teammates would do “everything possible so that beautiful and desired cup returns here.” Until Tuesday night, Messi looked set to make good on that promise.
In the space of 90 manic minutes at Anfield, though, he, and Barcelona, broke it. It’s difficult to truly summarise what happened to the Catalans in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Liverpool. Some of the notoriously harsh Spanish sports newspapers tried – one headline read ‘el mayor ridiculo de la historia,” ‘the biggest embarrassment in history.’ Another newspaper turned their front page black in mourning of the result.
Barcelona’s collapse from a 3-0 first leg lead will be picked over and analysed over the coming days and weeks. The performances of the likes of Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Clement Lenglet and Luis Suarez, all shockingly poor on the night, will be debated. Messi’s role in Barca’s humiliating Champions League exit also warrants scrutiny.
Along with Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, Messi was one of the few Barcelona players to at least turn in a credible performance. He was, as is so often the case, the Catalans’ driving force. The chances Barca did create, spurned primarily by Alba and Suarez, were the work of Messi. And yet something about his mood on the night was off.
On a night when Barca needed leaders, they had none. There was nobody in yellow (Barcelona wore their away kit) willing to take a grip of things, willing to be bold when bold characters were required. Messi, as the Barcelona captain, as the man who had promised that the Champions League trophy would return to Camp Nou, was meek. From early in the second half, he looked resigned to his team’s fate.
Of course, it’s somewhat jarring that Messi is the Barcelona captain in the first place. He might be the most influential figure at the club, but he is not a leader in the orthodox sense. Football may have moved on from the shout and scream manner of leadership, but that’s not to say that captains cannot be men of men. Just look at Vincent Kompany and, for all his other faults, Sergio Ramos.
That Messi was named the new Barcelona captain after Andres Iniesta’s departure at the end of last season was the classic case of the best player on the team being handed the armband. It was the sort of thing you would expect from a high school team, not one of the biggest clubs in the world.
So while Messi shouldn’t find himself in the firing line for what happened at Anfield on Tuesday, such was the standard of his general performance, his status as captain, and what is expected of such a figure, means that he won’t be protected from what will be thrown at Barcelona by the media and their own fans.
It goes without saying that there are very few weaknesses in Messi’s game. Even when there is one, the Argentinean works on it to turn it into a strength – see his improvement in taking freekicks over the years. But one weakness he appears either unwilling or unable to address is his deficiency as a leader.
More likely, it’s the latter. Messi has tried to be a leader this season. We have seen him take team talks in the tunnel, make public addresses to the Camp Nou crowd. But leadership is not measured in those moments, but in the moments when things go wrong like they did against Liverpool at Anfield. At that time, the one weakness in Messi’s game was exposed.