Monday, April 12, 2021

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are albatrosses weighing their clubs down

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Willingness to believe in the cult of the winner is worsening the plight of Barcelona and Juventus

On Tuesday, Juventus might overcome a 2-1 deficit against Porto in the Champions League. On Wednesday, Barcelona almost certainly won’t come back from 4-1 down to beat Paris Saint-Germain. Both clubs were comprehensively outplayed in the first legs, both are burdened by an ageing and expensive superstar, both have found the cracks in their financial planning exposed by the pandemic. At some point the narratives of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will decouple, but not now, not yet.

Football deals badly with mortality. It can be brutal in dealing with those with whom it has finished. Bill Shankly couldn’t even tell Ian St John to his face when, after eight years, the time came to drop him. After 11 golden years, Nobby Stiles wasn’t given a testimonial by Manchester United. West Ham reneged on a deal to let Bobby Moore leave on a free transfer. As the former Coventry and Derby manager Harry Storer once told Brian Clough, in football “nobody ever says thank you”.

But, at the same time, there is a bizarre willingness to believe in the cult of the winner, the idea that because a player or manager has done something before, he will necessarily be able to do it again – see, for example, the recent career of José Mourinho.

Barça’s plight is worse than Juve’s, but it is probably more understandable. Messi is their player and has been for 21 years. How could anybody ever decide it was the right moment to sell somebody who was not just for a long time the best player in the world but was also family? But Messi is not the best player in the world any longer, far from it.

From 2017, when they lost 4-0 away to PSG and 3-0 at Juve, it was clear Barça had a fundamental problem. Against high-class opposition, their midfield became stretched.

Every year since there has been a reminder: 3-0 to Roma in 2018, 4-0 to Liverpool in 2019, 8-2 to Bayern Munich in 2020, 4-1 to PSG three weeks ago.

In part that is the result of an aging and slowing midfield, but it is not just that, perhaps it is not even mainly that. It’s also to do with a forward line that puts almost no pressure on the ball, something that is integral to the Cruyffianism that underpins Barcelona’s identity.

In 2009-10 . . .

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