As European football begins a one-week international break, few teams relish the break more than Barcelona FC. Last year’s La Liga winners were expected to continue their run of form from the prior season given a stable group of core players. Even with former Liverpool bust Philippe Coutinho loaned out to Bayern Munich for the year, there would appear to be more than enough talent to challenge for the top spot of La Liga once again.
After three weeks of the season, however, doubts are being raised about the current crop of players. While a deal to bring back former Blaugrana striker Neymar from PSG appears dead, Barca was able to pry away French international forward and former Atletico Madrid goal-scorer Antoine Griezmann for a transfer fee of $135 million. Along with Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez up front, the Barca faithful had reason to believe that their goal production would be stellar.
After the first three weeks of the season, however, Barcelona finds itself near the middle of the La Liga table with four points. With their sole win coming against Real Betis at home, they lost their opener to Athletic Bilbao 1-0 and gave up a late goal on Saturday in Pamplona to draw against newly promoted Osasuna 2-2. With both of Barca’s goals coming from the bench, it would appear that the first team has been under-performing on the pitch.
To be fair, both Dembele and Suarez have sustained injuries in the first couple games that have kept them out of the lineup. But last season Suarez showed signs of decline and Dembele’s level of play was disappointing enough to use him as bait for the failed Neymar trade from PSG. As for Griezmann, his only goals came in the rout of Bilbao but was a no-show in the other two matches. For the Barcelona faithful, it’s clear that the piece of the puzzle that’s missing is their maestro, Lionel Messi, who injured himself immediately in training after arriving from the Copa America tournament.
While manager Ernesto Valverde and the team won’t discuss the severity of the injury, the Argentine talisman has more than likely peaked and is past his prime as an athlete. Messi, like fellow striker Suarez, is 32 years old, and the years of playing at a top level (along with the injuries incurred) take their toll on even the best of players. While Barcelona has lavishly spent money on goal-scorers in the past few years, it’s clear that they have yet to figure out where the goals will come from without Messi in the lineup. And with a defense that is mediocre at best, they need to produce goals in order to maintain their top-shelf status in Spain and in Europe as well.
In due time, Messi will return to training and be inserted back into the starting eleven. But father time catches up to all of us, and even the great Lionel Messi is not immune to the aging process. In two weeks, La Liga play resumes, along with Barca’s push for the Champions League Cup beginning on September 17th. Placed in a CL group of death that includes Borussia Dortmund and Internazionale, the Blaugrana will need Messi more than ever.
Will he be fit enough to respond?