Three years ago, Barcelona produced one of the most memorable Champions League comebacks in living memory. The La Liga giants overcame a 4-0 first leg defeat to PSG to put the Ligue 1 giants to the sword, winning 6-1 in the return fixture with Lionel Messi grabbing the headlines the following morning. But things ever since then have downhill – and is exactly why the Argentina international is so keen to pursue a new challenge elsewhere.
That night in March 2017 was the last time fans saw Barcelona are their electric, sensational best.
Few had given the Catalan giants hope of making the quarter-finals of the Champions League after they’d been ruthlessly beaten 4-0 by PSG in the first leg, with Angel Di Maria particularly majestic that night.
But Barcelona produced a sensational display to beat PSG and put them to the sword.
Messi wasn’t the talisman that night, with Neymar instead very much the star of the show. But the Argentina international made the headlines after the match, with his image plastered across the world’s newspapers.
Ever since that night, however, Barcelona’s empire has crumbled bit by bit.
Barcelona were weak as Juventus swatted them aside the following round, rendering their sensational comeback against PSG meaningless in the process.
And, months later, the club waved goodbye to Luis Enrique. The Spaniard gave his all to the job but quit, knowing he wasn’t the right person to oversee a Barcelona rebuild.
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In the summer of 2017, things changed considerably.
Suddenly, Neymar was no longer a Barcelona player. PSG sensed a chance to bring the Brazil international to France and succeeded, activating his £198million release clause to bring him to France.
Messi was crushed by Neymar’s exit. As speculation intensified for several weeks, he did his utmost to try and persuade Neymar that Barcelona was the right place for him to continue his footballing development.
Except his words fell on death ears, with the Samba star jumping ship anyway.
Barcelona benefitted financially from his departure. But, instead of spending shrewdly, they instead panicked by forking out close to £135m to sign Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund.
Sure, the France international had sparkled for the German giants the previous year, impressing under Thomas Tuchel in the German’s attack.
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But Barcelona overpaid for Dembele and, three years on, must be feeling regretful. With just 74 matches under his belt, the France international has been the exact opposite of money well spent.
In January 2018, they spent £142m on bringing Philippe Coutinho to the Nou Camp.
But that, too, has been money squandered. His best performance in the last two years actually came against Barcelona earlier this month, scoring twice as Bayern Munich battered them 8-2 to make the Champions League semi-finals.
And that’s exactly why Messi wants out.
He knows the club have lost their aura. Champions League exits to Roma, Liverpool and now Bayern all suggest that Barcelona are a faded force, an empire about to crumble.
And their decline can be traced back to the year of 2017, when they lost Neymar, got recruitment wrong and also lost Enrique.
Ernesto Valverde did well to keep the Barcelona ship afloat during his spell in charge, guiding the club to back to back La Liga titles.
But that’s merely papered over the cracks. It’s now clear that this side requires major surgery, one that may take years to get the club back to where they used to be.
Messi feels he’s spent the last three years drifting and stagnating, particularly at a time where Real Madrid have conquered the Champions League three times in the last five years.
And, now, a parting of the ways is on the cards.
Messi’s decision to leave Barcelona can be traced back to 2017, the year he lost his best friend and his manager.
And that was also the year where Barcelona lost their aura, with a spell of mediocrity now likely for the foreseeable future.
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