Upon his touchdown in Barcelona on his return from international assignments after a tiring 15-hour flight, Lionel Messi encountered a bumpy reception with eager reporters and a tax officer at El Prat airport, with the latter seeking clarifications on the Barca talisman’s private jet.
As for the reporters, football-related interrogations, needless to say with the primary focus on what Messi made of the caustic remarks, published while the Barcelona captain was away with the Argentina team, from two members of Antoine Griezmann’s entourage, particularly Eric Olhats, Griezmann’s former mentor and ex-agent, who had openly called Messi an “emperor” who rules his club “with a reign of terror”, and who had been frosty in his treatment of his team-mate, Griezmann.
“To be honest, I’m tired of always being the problem for everything at this club,” sighed Messi, obviously not enamored of the perception that he is the ideal scapegoat for all that goes awry at Barcelona.
The Olhats interview, featured in France Football magazine, will no doubt make things awkward for both Messi and Griezmann as another episode in the ongoing Barca soap opera.
Messi, whose contract expires next summer, was gunning to leave Camp Nou in August last year on a free, disgruntled with the then President, Josep Maria Bartomeu, who has since ignominously departed the club in the aftermath of enraged fans clamoring for his resignation. But before his resignation, Bartomeu had put a damper on the talisman’s exit plans, citing the clause that required potential suitors to fork out a ginormous sum to secure Messi’s release. Not wanting to take his club to court, Barcelona’s favorite son decided to put the matter to rest for the present time and finally decided to stay back at Camp Nou – for now, at least.
Barely had the flames of unrest abated and yet the simmering embers are now again stirred to life in the wake of fresh scandalous media disclosures from members in Griezmann’s entourage demonising Messi as the Faustian perpetrator enforcing his reign of terror behind the scenes at the Blaugrana.
Similarly Griezmann, fresh from glory guiding France to a place in the next Uefa Nations League finals, landed back in Catalonia only to face the glaring discomfort of more uncomfortable headlines courtesy of a former agent-cum-adviser and a relative.
Victor Font, Barca’s Presidential candidate frontrunner, subsequently waded in on the fracas in his obvious propaganda pitch to set out his manifesto, knowing fully well that votes, primarily from the season-ticket holders empowered to elect the next president, will be swayed on the Messi bandwagon. He cited the signing of Griezmann as a major blunder by the previous regime. Adding fuel to fire, he said:
“He [Griezmann] was clearly a signing that shouldn’t have happened because of the position he plays in.”
The Frenchman is an acquisition from Atletico in 2019 that cost Barcelona €120 million, yet scored only nine Liga goals in his first season – way below the record that made him a respected icon at Atletico.
However when Messi made it clear his own preference was that Barca should seriously focus on re-signing Neymar, the spotlight was inevitably trained on the awkward Messi-Griezmann pairing, with Font’s recent verdict being that they are incompatible on the pitch:
“Griezmann came in to occupy the Messi position – it made fitting in very complicated.”
Coincidentally, Font is not alone in pointing out that the Messi-Griezmann combination is an alignment that has looked problematic at times.
The French national team manager, Didier Deschamps, spoke last week on Griezmann’s compromising situation at the Nou Camp, while the player himself referenced how “playing his best position” – in a more central role, rather than as a wide attacker – for his country had produced better results over the last two international breaks. To his credit, Griezmann shone in Les Bleus’ win over Portugal over the weekend.
Griezmann had also played a major part together with Messi in contributing to the 5-2 emaciation of Real Betis that finally managed to add a fresh sprinkling of joy to Barcelona just before the international break, with Messi scoring his second and third goals of the Liga season and Griezmann setting up the opener and then netting one for himself. The win lifted Koeman’s team into the top half of the table and hinted at a much-anticipated upturn.
Sunday will again see the Messi-Griezmann pairing put to the litmus test against a rejuvenated Atletico that will only be too eager to erect a barrier to block out the duo. To Griezmann’s relief, the absence of spectators at the Metropolitano will mean no heckling from Athletico fans still smoldering from the lingering sense of betrayal perpetuated by his departure to the Blaugrana.
Koeman on the other hand, will be breathing a huge sigh of relief as there will be no awkwardness resulting from the presence of Luis Suarez, whom he had dispensed with and dismissed over a short, perfunctory phone call in the previous summer. The Uruguayan, El Pistolero to his fans, who would top Messi’s list of all-time favourite striking partners besides Neymar, unfortunately tested positive for coronavirus while on international duty in South America recently. Although reportedly asymptomatic, the feared striker is obliged to serve his quarantine.
With two games in hand over leaders Real Sociedad and second-placed Villarreal, a situation made more appealing with a Barca side unsettled and Real Madrid having their own struggles with consistency, Atletico harbor their best chance of repeating their feat of seizing another La Liga title after having surprisingly eclipsed the dominant ‘Big Two’ to seize the Spanish League’s top honors in 2014.
They can be fully expected to give it all they’ve got to thwart the finnicky strike partnership of Messi and Griezmann this Sunday. Let’s wait and see how the ensuing drama unfolds.