In 17 seasons with Lionel Messi in the team, Barcelona reached at least the last-16 of the Champions League every time.
In two seasons without him they have failed to get out of the group. On the morning after their latest early exit one question was unavoidable – is the second coming the answer?
There were chants of ‘Messi! Messi!’ at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night but they were from sarcastic Bayern fans in the away section teasing the Barcelona supporters who had stayed to the bitter end as their team lost to the Germans again.
Any operation to bring him back would be problematic. Paris Saint-Germain want Messi to sign for another year until 2024, Barcelona could only afford him if big earners Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba all leave, and even then they would probably need to win the Europa League to make up for the Champions League prize money shortfall to help pay his albeit reduced wages.
If it can be done, the next question would be: will it be universally embraced as a good thing?
Barcelona supporters are split between those that want him back to lead the side once more and those that doubt him returning next summer, aged 36, would really solve anything.
One thing is clear – he was never the problem before.
In Messi’s final seasons at Barcelona the idea was peddled that he was the reason for the team’s failings. The argument went that Barça had to carry him when they didn’t have the ball and that you can’t compete in Europe with 10 men.
It doesn’t seem to be affecting Paris Saint-Germain. The Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe attack has scored 80 per cent of the team’s goals, and Messi has scored 11 and set up 10 this season.
Messi left for PSG to extend his Champions League story and he now has 129 goals in the competition, just 11 short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s record.
It’s true that Messi was on the pitch when Barcelona were beaten 8-2 by Bayern in Lisbon in 2020 but that was in the quarter-finals: what the club wouldn’t do for that now and the prize money it would bring.
The biggest argument for not bringing Messi back is that for all the brilliance that he brings he can’t play at right-back where Barcelona still have a massive hole having not done enough to sign Cesar Azpilicueta in the summer.
He can’t play in Sergio Busquets’ position where the club’s failure to even try to bring in a specialist to play in his place is beyond comprehension.
And he can’t play left centre-back where they currently have Marco Alonso because there is no fit alternative.
It was sad to see Busquets whistled off last night in what was almost definitely his last Champions League game at home for the club he has served for over a decade winning the competition three times. The priority is to replace him, not bring back a player who always had a special connection with him.
The flip side is that the player himself is open to the idea – as Argentinian journalist Veronica Brunati tweeted earlier this month.
It’s true that his family consider Barcelona home and would welcome it. And it’s true that as a marketing exercise the swansong season would be a lucrative operation for him and for the club.
When Xavi was asked about the possibility recently he said: ‘Let him enjoy his football in Paris’. Would the coach be as keen on the idea as some others are?
He’s is sceptical about how he would fit both a 36-year-old Messi and a 35-year-old Robert Lewandowski into his side next season. The Pole has arrived on a long deal up until 2026 – in terms of gifted attacking talisman he is supposed to be Messi’s replacement how would Xavi get both into his team.
Of course it might not be Xavi’s decision to make. If Barcelona win nothing this season the temptation will be there for president Joan Laporta to bring in another coach – who is likely to be even less keen on a returning idol clouding the picture going forward.
The sensible analysis is probably that Barcelona were wrong to get rid of Messi when they did, but that hiring him again next year will not fix anything.
The caveat is that Laporta is an expert at pulling a rabbit out of the hat when all else fails, and there is no bigger magic rabbit than Messi.