Lionel Messi made a bumpy touchdown in Barcelona on his return from international assignments. Customs officials met his private jet at El Prat airport and routine checks on paperwork caused an hour’s delay.
Then came the football-related interrogations. Reporters were waiting. What did Messi make of some peppery remarks, published while the Barcelona captain was away with Argentina, from a member of Barca striker’s Antoine Griezmann’s entourage? Eric Olhats, Griezmann’s former mentor and ex-agent, had called Messi an “emperor” who rules his club “with a reign of terror”, and had been a frosty team-mate to Griezmann.
“To be honest, I’m tired of always being the problem for everything at this club,” sighed Messi, as he set off for home, to turn his mind to Barcelona's unusually low place – eighth – in La Liga.
The Olhats interview, in France Football magazine, has been awkward for both Messi and Griezmann, another episode in the ongoing Barca soap opera.
Messi, whose contract expires next summer, tried to leave in August, the president resigned in October and the third different Barcelona manager of 2020, Ronaldo Koeman, is under pressure after one win from the last five league games. The Dutchman must now gather together his returning internationals and devise a plan for his toughest away trip yet, at Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Griezmann, fresh from guiding France to a place in the next Uefa Nations League finals, landed back in Catalonia to more uncomfortable headlines.
Victor Font, a leading candidate to win elections for the next Barcelona president, had been setting out his manifesto. He cited Griezmann as an example of what the previous regime got wrong in their recruitment.
“He was clearly a signing that shouldn’t have happened because of the position he [Griezmann] plays in,” said Font. The Frenchman cost €120 million ($140m) from Atletico in 2019, and scored nine Liga goals in his first season – well down on the record that made him a figurehead at Atletico, at least until he agreed to join Barcelona, a year after turning them down and pledging himself to the Madrid club.
The saga of Barca’s prolonged pursuit, and Griezmann’s saying ‘No’ in 2018 and then ‘Yes’ a year later was always going to test the Griezmann-Barcelona marriage.
When Messi made it clear his own preference was that Barca try to re-sign Neymar, focus inevitably trained on the Messi-Griezmann pairing. Font’s verdict is that they are incompatible as footballers: “Griezmann came in to occupy the Messi’s position – it made fitting in very complicated.”
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Font speaks as a campaigner who knows that votes, from the season-ticket holders empowered to choose the next president, will be swayed on the projected Barcelona future of Messi.
The heavy spending of recent years – €100m-plus on Griezmann, on Philippe Coutinho, on Ousmane Dembele – are an easy stick with which to batter the previous regime. But he is not alone for pointing out that the Messi-Griezmann axis has looked problematic at times.
France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, spoke last week of Griezmann’s difficult situation at Barcelona, while the player referenced how “playing his best position” – a more central role, rather than as a wide attacker – for his country had been beneficial over the last two international breaks. Griezmann shone in Les Bleus’ win over Portugal at the weekend.
He and Messi both contributed to the 5-2 victory over Real Betis that spread a little joy over troubled Barcelona just before the recess, Messi scoring his second and third goals of the Liga season and Griezmann setting up the opener and then netting himself. The win lifted Koeman's team into the top half of the table and hinted at an upturn.
Atletico will examine how real that is. To Griezmann's relief, there will be no spectators at the Metropolitano. The lingering sense of betrayal among fans of his former club is powerful.
To Koeman's relief, there will be no Luis Suarez, who left Barcelona reluctantly in the summer. The Uruguayan, who would top Messi's list of all-time favourite striking partners, tested positive for coronavirus while in South America. He is reported to be asymptomatic but obliged to serve his quarantine.
Suarez has so far thrived at his new club, his five goals in six matches having pushed unbeaten Atletico to third in the table.
They have two games in hand over leaders Real Sociedad and second-placed Villarreal, and, with Barca unsettled, and Real Madrid struggling for consistency, Atletico glimpse their best chance of a title since they eclipsed the so-called ‘Big Two’ to seize La Liga in 2014.