PSG could have a say in Barca superstar Lionel Messi’s future
Barca captain 'happy' leading side's revival, but loss to PSG could end club stay
Barcelona captain Lionel Messi has the unenviable task of leading a youthful side to an unfancied victory over Paris Saint-Germain at the Nou Camp in the Champions League last 16 tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
From nurturing the next generation of Barcelona talents to confronting one of Europe's richest, most ambitious clubs, the fork in the road for Messi's future is becoming clear.
When Messi explained to goal.com why he wanted to go last summer, he reiterated his desire for a "winning project" but also said he "wanted to live my last years in football happily". He admitted how hard it was to tell his family they were leaving.
For the first few weeks of the season, he seemed distracted, like a player giving his all while simultaneously wishing he was somewhere else.
Yet Barcelona have stabilised under Ronald Koeman. As it stands, they sit third in La Liga, eight points behind Atletico Madrid. They were beaten by Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final and trail Sevilla 2-0 after the semi-final, first leg of the Copa del Rey.
While Koeman's team are never perfect and always far from the finished article, a renewed sense of purpose seems to be emerging. The Dutch coach has enabled struggling players to flourish and promising youngsters to shine.
Pedri, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder, has stood out, his eye for a pass chiming with Messi's quickness of thought.
"In Pedri, Messi has found a reason to enjoy the game again," wrote Diario Sport last month.
Ansu Fati sparkled before injury struck last November. In defence, the 21-year-old Ronald Araujo, who is also expected to miss the first leg with an ankle problem, emerged as Koeman's most reliable central defender.
Frenkie de Jong has excelled in recent weeks and Ousmane Dembele is enjoying his best spell at the club. Messi, like the team, has looked happy.
"He is focused, he is happy, he has found that ruthless streak again," said Koeman last Saturday.
The excitement may prove misplaced or, at least, premature given there are no guarantees Barcelona's depleted defence will not cave against PSG.
Leading the French champions is former PSG captain Mauricio Pochettino, who has also played and coached Barca's city rivals Espanyol.
The 48-year-old is still trying to put his stamp on the team, having taken the helm just last month.
He has won eight and drawn one of his first 10 games, but none of the teams he has come up against are near the level even of the current Barcelona.
The absence of stars Neymar and Angel di Maria at the Nou Camp is an enormous blow. Marco Verratti is a doubt and Kylian Mbappe, with four goals in the last 10 games, has not consistently produced his electrifying best for some time.
Pochettino, who led Tottenham Hotspur to the 2019 Champions League final, has chopped and changed formations too.
"We want the team to be confident playing in different systems, but it's not always easy to get a lot of work done in just 40 days," he said after last Saturday's 2-1 win over Nice.
"We have to be ready and the team will be ready." - AFP