It was the 89th minute and it could have been the end; 63,378 people watched, minus those who’d already departed depressed – and there were plenty of them – as he stood alone before them. Standing before him, meanwhile, was Iago Herrerín; Iago Herrerín and disaster. But there were no nerves, just annoyance, and there would be no joy, not even much sign of relief. Leo Messi took the penalty that might just have rescued Barcelona’s season, pulling them from an even darker place and keeping them alive for another week at least, as if all he really wanted was to get rid of the ball. Kick the bloody thing away. So he did: dismissively, angrily … and into the net.
And then he stood there. Messi didn’t smile, didn’t raise his fingers to the sky, another goal dedicated to his late grandmother Celia, and didn’t say anything. Team-mates ran over and embraced him but there was barely a flicker. He had just scored the winner in the last minute – although there was still time for Nabil El Zhar’s shot to fly wide at the other end – yet he didn’t feel like celebrating, didn’t feel he had anything to celebrate. He just stood, eyes lost, as if he was embarrassed or angry or both, ashamed by it all, black thoughts going round his mind. At the full-time whistle he walked off, occasionally responding to an opponent’s outstretched hand, but not stopping, like he just wanted to get out of there.
Marc-André TerStegen eventually followed him, stopping briefly for the pitchside interview. “It’s been a very difficult week for everyone and the most important thing was to win,” he said.
The most important thing, perhaps, but not the only thing. That much had been laid bare. A win like this did little for them, emotionally. It came in the last minute, Barcelona playing their Get Out Of Jail Free card – another one. They had scored after just three minutes, Messi putting away Luis Suárez’s assist, but UnaiLópez had equalised for Leganés to make it 1-1 with 20 minutes to go. A draw would have left Barcelona three points behind Real Madrid, having played two games more and and hurting. In the week in which they were hammered 4-0 in Paris, their Champions League campaign virtually over, their league campaign might have been virtually over as well. But then came Messi.
Actually, then came Neymar. For all the talk of Messi – “once again, Messi,” the headline in Sport read; “The savior: Messi saved Barcelona again,” El MundoDeportivo echoed – it was the Brazilian who really made it happen, just as he was the only player really making anything happen in Paris or trying to anyway. He ran into the area and was brought down by Martín Mantovani to win the penalty. Messi hit it hard, almost irritably, into the corner – a sensation that was reinforced by the way he reacted, or didn’t react.
It is indeed worrying sign for Barcelona that they have become dependent on one man so much. Lionel Messi is saving their skin every week now, but it won’t be the case a few years down the line. And Barcelona need to start working on it before it’s too late.