With Villa struggling, Barcelona may make change up front
Samuel Eto'o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa have each won their share of silverware with Barcelona, but all three top-notch strikers have had to swallow their pride as Lionel Messi takes most of the goals and almost all the glory.
Neither Eto'o nor Ibrahimovic could conform to playing second fiddle to the Argentina forward and were forced out of the club despite their on-pitch success.
Now, it seems Villa could be the latest in a long line of some of the world's best scoring talent that hasn't been able to remake himself into another cog of Barcelona's well-tuned scoring machine built around the boot of the four-time Ballon d'Or.
For Barcelona's unique make of small, pass-happy midfielder, there is no better teammate than Messi. He rarely wastes Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez or Cesc Fabregas' incisive passes, and his own knack at handing out assists is overshadowed by his remarkable scoring feats.
But ever since former coach Pep Guardiola designated Messi as the centerpiece of his team's attack, the one position that is considered almost untouchable on most teams is precisely the one that Barcelona is quickest to turn over.
With Villa struggling to make his way back into Barcelona's starting 11 under Guardiola's heir, first-year coach Tito Vilanova, the club could be set for another change up front.
"We know what we have in Villa,'' Vilanova said in December. "A player of his quality wants to play every game. (But) sometimes there isn't room for him, no matter how much you tweak the system, he doesn't fit.''
Barcelona has never hesitated to recycle goalscorers who no longer gel. Names like Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, and current AC Milan forward Bojan Krkic can all be added to those above, as well as stars from the 1990s like Romario and Ronaldo, who shone for one season and then fell out of grace.
The watershed moment that marked Guardiola's decision to permanently feature Messi at the center of his attack, and thus condemn its strikers to play out of position, was the Catalan side's 6-2 thrashing of archrival Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu stadium to practically clinch the 2008-09 league title.
Messi was expected to play in his then usual spot on the right wing. But Guardiola surprised everyone by shifting Eto'o out wide and putting Messi in the middle, with Henry on the left. It worked to perfection. Messi scored twice as Barcelona dealt Madrid one of its most humiliating losses in their long-standing rivalry.
Guardiola and Messi never looked back, as the team won 14 trophies under the manager and Messi increased his goal hauls each subsequent season until hitting his unprecedented milestone of 73 last season.
"What was my part in all this? The only thing I did was move Messi closer to the goal,'' said Guardiola. "I understood that I needed to get him off the wing. That's what I am there to do, to get the most out of my players.''
Eto'o scored 34 goals to help Barcelona win the treble of league, Champions League, and Copa del Rey titles in 2008-09, Guardiola's first season as its coach. But Guardiola pushed for a transfer regardless, arguing that there was a lack of "feeling'' with Eto'o.
Eto'o's exit was costly for Barcelona. The club had to pay Inter Milan ?46 million (then $65 million) in addition to the Cameroon international to get Ibrahimovic in return. Ibrahimovic scored 16 goals for Barcelona to help it win the Spanish league in 2009-10. But after starting well, he soon faded from Guardiola's plans.
In his autobiography published last year, Ibrahimovic said that things went sour when Messi "wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed (...) I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed.''
Ibrahimovic was shipped out by the beginning of the next season on loan to Milan, with the agreement that he would be bought for ?24 million (then $30.5 million) at the end of the season.
Next up? Enter Villa from Valencia for a cool ?40 million ($49.7 million).
Villa said on the day of his presentation that Messi was "the best in the world,'' seemingly aware that he would no longer be the first option in attack.
"I have come to the best team in the world and I will play alongside the best,'' Villa said. But he probably never imagined that he would be watching many games from the bench.
In 2011, after guiding Barcelona to its second Champions League trophy in three years under his command, Guardiola underlined the importance of its Argentina forward. "I hope the club's board listens and keeps building the team around Messi,'' he said.
Guardiola needn't have worried.
Vilanova, Guardiola's former assistant, has placed an even heavier accent on Messi, preferring to accompany him with playmakers as opposed to goalscorers like Villa.
World champion Spain's all-time leading scorer, Villa has yet to recover his starter's role since returning at the beginning of this season from a long layoff after breaking a shin bone in December 2011.
Villa's problem appears not so much to be about character or "feeling,'' but rather Vilanova actually taking Guardiola's focus on Messi to a new extreme.
Villa has made fewer appearances and starts this season than Messi, Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez. Even so, he has managed to net 10 goals- second only to Messi's 39- while Pedro has five and Alexis just three despite both enjoying more minutes.
When asked if Villa was upset about not playing, Vilanova said "I don't know. I haven't asked him.''
Judging from his lineups, Vilanova prefers the speed Pedro and Alexis offer to the natural scoring talent of the more static Villa because their movement leaves more spaces for Messi- and midfielders like Iniesta and Fabregas- to exploit.
This disconnect between Villa and Messi became apparent during a game against Granada in September. Messi vented his frustration with Villa for dribbling the ball too long before making a pass, yelling "one touch! one touch!'' in reference to the basic tenet of Barcelona's passing style that keeps defenses on a swivel, trying to follow its flurry of combinations, even among heavy traffic.
"I play as a `false' central striker because I like to arrive late in attack, linking up with players in the middle by passing the ball,'' Messi told El Periodico on Saturday. "I'm lucky to be with spectacular players who I can combine with through half the pitch. We have the ball almost all the game and I like to participate as much as possible.
"In our style of play, we always start the attack in the middle. Later, the midfielders, backs and wings arrive,'' Messi said, with no mention of his fellow forwards.
Whether Villa stays or goes when the season ends is yet to be seen, and there are already rumors that Brazil striker Neymar could be his replacement.
But Barcelona's fans and players surely remember that even with Messi's record-setting scoring campaign last season, the team still came up short in the league and Champions League races.
So while the team looks set to reclaim the league crown, Messi could need someone else to step up in the high-pressure moments as the Champions League enters the knockout phase.
Villa might still get his chance to prove his true worth.