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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 21 January, 2019

Graham Hunter on Lionel Messi: 'He wants to stay at a Barcelona that's more to his liking'

The Spanish football expert talks to us about whether the Argentine attacker could genuinely swap the Nou Camp for pastures new.

Image: Alvaro Barrientos/AP/Press Association Images

OVER THE LAST few days, speculation has mounted that Barcelona’s Lionel Messi may be prepared to walk away from the club.

It seems inexplicable. The Argentine moved to the Catalan giants at 13, made his debut for the first-team at 17 and has enjoyed a scarcely-believable avalanche of success ever since, a myriad and multitude of mind-boggling numbers. Six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, two FIFA Club World Cups, two UEFA Super Cups and two Copa del Rey triumphs. On a personal level, there have been numerous records and accolades including four successive Ballon d’Or awards.

But has he grown tired of an ever-changing Barcelona – a club that has seemingly been in free-fall since the departure of Pep Gurdiola? Does he carry an unshakeable mistrust of manager Luis Enrique? Is he merely sulking and seeking attention or genuinely weighing up a switch elsewhere?

Graham Hunter, Spanish football expert and author of the excellent Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, told that the diminutive and devastating attacker wants to remain at the club but wants changes to be made.

I don’t think there’s any question that the primary aim, the whole-hearted intention of Lionel Messi is to stay. But he wants to stay at a Barcelona which is more to his liking – better run, more competitive.”

“There’s absolutely no question that following a decent-sized row with Luis Enrique on the Friday before the Real Sociedad game that Barcelona lost and where Messi didn’t start, he then went and threw a sickie on the Monday after the game and didn’t come to training. That was, without question, a little power-play, a little message to his coach and he was happy for it to be picked up by the media. And I think the power-play has already been won.”

Soccer - Barcelona v Club Leon - Joan Gamper Trophy - Camp Nou Stadium Messi has had his problems with current Barcelona boss Luis Enrique. Source: MIquel Llop/CORDON/Press Association Images

Much has been made of Messi’s apparent issues with Enrique and that there was a simmering tension between the pair prior to the forward’s restricted role in the defeat to David Moyes’ unfashionable outfit on 4th January. The Barca coach, who replaced Tata Martino last summer, spent eight seasons at the Nou Camp as a player between 1996 and 2004 before cutting his managerial teeth with Barcelona B before short stints at Roma and Celta Vigo.

According to Hunter, Messi dislikes Enrique for a number of reasons.

“Two things have troubled Messi about his coach. Firstly, he doesn’t particularly like the manner in which Luis Enrique speaks to his players or the way in which he will use his assistants to communicate messages. Messi finds Luis Enrique a little bit haughty, not particularly sympatico. It’s proven that even the most authoritarian coaches, like Sir Alex Ferguson, develop different ways of communicating with the most important players. He certainly treated footballers as human beings, he understood that they weren’t merely pawns. He fell out spectacularly with some strong characters but for those who were important to him on a long-lasting basis, he was not the grim-faced, one-toned, shouting manager that he’s portrayed as from the outside in. If that’s good enough for a manager who will arguably go down as one of the greatest of all time, it should be for Luis Enrique. He’s not a bad person. It’s just that one of the tools in his managerial kit is insufficiently developed and he’s put Messi off with his manner.”

Messi is also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way the team is selected and the crucial thing here is: 27 competitive matches for Luis Enrique and 27 different formations. And more importantly, there have been several occasions when players have been played out of position. Luis Enrique’s secrecy has extended to the fact that he doesn’t even really inform his players of any major changes –  be they positional or practical – until 90 minutes before kick-off. The constant line-up changes and the unnecessary climate of secrecy have become debilitating to Barcelona’s ability to perform well.  If I were Lionel Messi, I’d have been complaining more loudly and sooner.”

Sensing some dissension in the ranks, Europe’s top clubs are on high-alert. But, any deal for the Argentine will take months of delicate planning and a lot can change at Barcelona in the short-term. Firstly, there’s a distinct possibility that Enrique could be out of a job. Secondly, there will be a presidential election in the summer which brings about its own set of unique repercussions. But, should Messi not be placated and his demands ignored instead, a mammoth deal to take him to another club can’t be ruled out.

Spain Soccer Copa del Rey Source: Manu Fernandez/AP/Press Association Images

“In his perfect world, Lionel Messi will stay in his beach-side villa outside Barcelona”, says Hunter.

“He’ll play at a club that he has consistently reiterated is the place where he’d like to complete his career – at least in Europe. So, his preference is not to engineer a move to Manchester City or to Chelsea or to Manchester United or Bayern Munich. These things come into play if he finally decides that this is no longer a place where people share the same ambitions, where he’s not wanted, where he’s not respected. Then it becomes a different story. But we’re not there yet. Right now, we are doing some housekeeping – making sure things are the way he wants them to be. And that is the club being at an elite level of competitiveness. Whether they’re winning the league and Champions League every season or not, it’s about ensuring that they are properly competitive. I defend any elite athlete’s right to say ‘It’s not simply about the performance I give. It’s about the elements of the team and the club around me that matter to me.”

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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