Barcelona’s comprehensive home defeat to Real Madrid in the semifinals in the Copa del Rey has raised further questions about the side’s stuttering form. Following a similarly conclusive loss to Milan in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, it is perhaps not an overreaction to consider that there is more wrong with the Barcelona side than just a temporary slump.
While defensive lapses played a big part in both matches, it was also noticeable how little impact Lionel Messi had on proceedings. It is fair to suggest that Messi has not been at his usual glorious best in recent games, but it would also be negligent not to analyze reasons beyond simply a drop in the Argentinian wizard’s own standards.
Messi has been playing as almost a one-man attacking force in recent times, with little threat alongside him. Big things were expected of Alexis Sanchez, but the Chilean has regressed this season and he now looks so lacking in confidence that he is almost unplayable.
The decline in Pedro’s game has not been quite so drastic, but just six goals in 33 appearances is a paltry return. When you consider that the wide forward has scored seven goals for Spain during this campaign and it is easy to see what a scoring threat he can be.
David Villa’s scoring rate is far superior to both Sanchez’s and Pedro’s but Spain’s all-time record scorer continues to be overlooked in the important games. There is a strong suggestion that, whether on or off the pitch, Villa has suffered because of his poor relationship with Messi.
It would not be the first time a big-money forward has suffered due to the dominating presence of Messi. Zlatan Ibrahimovic strongly asserted that it was Messi’s demands to be the clear focal point of the attack that led to his failure at Camp Nou.
One can understand Barcelona putting so much emphasis on perhaps the greatest player the world has ever seen. But has it now become detrimental to the team, and Messi?
It appears that Villa’s career at Barcelona is all but over already. A January exit was close, with Arsenal having pushed hard for his signing. While the Blaugrana didn’t want to risk being left short for the remainder of the season, a summer move looks to be on the cards. This week, Barcelona vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu admitted that the situation will be reassessed at the end of the campaign and that the club will not stand in the 31-year-old’s way if he wishes to leave.
There have been mixed reports over whether Arsenal will rekindle their interest, but there are sure to be a host of clubs who would pursue a player who remains one of the best finishers around.
That would unquestionably leave Barcelona needing a replacement. It appears increasingly likely that the man the Liga leaders want to add to their attack is Brazilian sensation Neymar. Speculation has persisted for some time claiming that Camp Nou was the 21-year-old’s likely destination when he decides to leave Santos. There were even reports, denied by Barcelona, late last year that a deal had already been agreed with the Catalans having made a down-payment.
But Bartomeu has revealed this week that Neymar is a player they very much covet.
"He is wanted by half the world,” he told Spanish publication AS. “When he says he wants to leave Santos, the club (Barca) will be there to try and sign him."
Neymar and Santos have repeatedly insisted that the player will stay put until after the 2014 World Cup, but Barcelona’s recent struggles are likely to increase the determination on their part to get a deal done this summer.
The signing of Neymar, if and when it happens, would become the latest high-profile forward to arrive and try to succeed alongside Messi. Given the constant comparisons between the two that have already been made, not only for their playing style, but due to the fearsome rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, it promises to be the most challenging combination Barcelona have tried.
Yet, it is also the most enticing. For it to work, though, both Barcelona and Messi may have to accept taking just some of the focus away from a man that has inspired the club to unparalleled success in the past five seasons.