If 10 days ago you had told a Barcelona fan that the centre of the debate surrounding the team’s summer would be about a possible Lionel Messi departure then they would have called you crazy, however after the 8-2 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, that’s exactly where we are and it’s time to wonder: what happens if the captain leaves?
It’s a question that no Barcelona fan or board member has ever really been forced to ask themselves prior to this juncture.
Rather unlike his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, who was constantly using his unsellable status to panic his employers, Messi has always remained staunchly loyal and committed to the club where he developed.
However, that loyalty hasn’t been repaid in his eyes with Los Cules’ transfers ever since Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta left having been nothing short of woeful.
The possibility of Messi playing in another shirt remains remote, however it’s important to realise that the Argentine has never been closer to leaving the club than he is right now.
In a meeting on Thursday with his new coach, Ronald Koeman, Messi explained to the Dutchman that his continuation with the club isn’t clear and that he feels more outside of the club than in.
He has no strength to start a new journey with the current administration, nor does he have any faith that they will be able to build a team capable of challenging for the Champions League in 2020/21.
Messi‘s patience has been wearing thin for months, and the defeat to Bayern Munich was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Despite his apparent delusion with regards to the club’s perilous financial situation, Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board know that the possibility of losing Messi is very real.
They have to prepare a plan for the worst-case scenario and the first question on that strand would just who would take Messi‘s role on the pitch?
A debate would be needed to see if there is anyone at the club with the right profile to lead the team and have the requisite quality to be a reference point for a team that can win the Champions League.
Such a player would need to be a club star, akin to what Messi has been and Ronaldinho before him.
There are very few candidates in the current squad, despite the fact there are multiple players who cost more than 100 million euros, but none of them have ever looked comfortable at the Camp Nou.
Antoine Griezmann was such a player for Atletico Madrid, but he hasn’t replicated those performances in Catalonia and it’s difficult to imagine him taking on this role.
Two other players are Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, merely based on their price, but neither player has shown either the consistency or ability to take over from Messi.
What is particularly troubling for fans is that Barcelona have such a poor record when it comes to replacing players.
Xavihas never been replaced and you’d imagine that Messi would prove to be equally irreplaceable, if not more so.
However, what is especially galling is the fact that at one time Barcelona have had the two players most suited in the world to replacing Xavi and Messi in their ranks.
Thiago Alcantara has developed into a Xavi-esque midfielder at Bayern Munich, whilst there is no better player at unbalancing a defence in the world right now than Neymar, both of whom were sold by the Blaugrana.
One alternative would be to go into the market and make a statement signing to keep fans calm in the midst of the heartbreak that losing Messi would bring.
However, this is something that hasn’t necessarily worked with Coutinho and Dembele being signed to replace Neymar, and both have been awful.
The aforementioned Neymar would be the natural choice for this type of signing, and perhaps the only choice, yet getting him out of PSG would be near impossible, as Barcelona found in 2019.
Furthermore, if Messi wasn’t alongside him there are no guarantees that Neymar would even want to come back.
Kylian Mbappe is a player in a different situation, albeit with the ability to lead Barcelona for over a decade.
He’s a sensation, but he’s a day away from playing in his first Champions League final and has already won the World Cup, he is incredibly comfortable waiting for his contract to expire in search of a Bosman move to the club he supported as a boy, Real Madrid.