By 90Min
October 02, 2018

'Crisis' is a naff football word. It gets thrown around at the drop of a hat, it means nothing, and encapsulates everything. It's an especially naff football word to use after less than two months of the season. 

That's why Barcelona aren't in crisis. 

But. 

Barca fans have just seen their side fail to win three consecutive games for the first time in 95 weeks – and last time, those three games (all draws) were a home Clasico and two away games. This time, they're drawn at home to Girona and Athletic and lost. Away. To bottom of the table Leganes. 

Fans are already starting to turn on Ernesto Valverde after he won the double last season. Questions are being asked in the Catalan newspapers, and a failure to pick up three points at Wembley on Wednesday will make this the club's longest winless run since March 2009. 

Those facts alone constitute a crisis – barely even a blip – but they're the symptoms of a larger problem, rather than being the problem entire. 

In the midst of a near undefeated league campaign, it was easy to forget that Barca started last season in the midst of a full-blown institutional meltdown. They were made to watch on impotently as one of their biggest stars muscled his way out of the club to Paris, while a motion of no confidence was proposed against the board. 

€147m new boy Ousmane Dembele looked a poorer version of himself – never mind a poorer version of Neymar – and a 5-1 aggregate spanking at the hands of Real Madrid in the Super Cup left fans fearing a nightmare season. Much like so many things in Spain, just because the nightmare was late, it doesn't mean it wasn't on its way. 

Despite coming within an inch of an historic unbeaten season in La Liga, Barcelona did it without ever really impressing. Week after week, they would be on the brink of dropping points...until Messi. 

Drawing 2-2 with a doomed Depor at the Riazor? Messi hits two in the last 10 minutes. 2-0 down at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan? Messi comes off the bench and rescues a point. 2-0 down at Anoeta? Messi. Minutes away from dropping points at home to Alaves? Messi. Losing at Espanyol? Messi puts the perfect ball in for Pique. 

Messi. Messi. Always, always Lionel Messi, shouldering the weight of a team whose generals have wearied after countless campaigns. Andres Iniesta joined Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Xavi in lucrative retirement homes this summer, and Sergio Busquets has reached the point of needing to be rested more than ever before. The cast around him is shrinking, but there's still Messi. There's always Messi. 

Ernesto Valverde has been hit with waves of criticism for resting the Argentine in Saturday's 1-1 draw at home to Athletic. He went out early at the World Cup! He didn't go on international duty! How, this early in the season, can Messi not be fit to play four games in two weeks?

The fact is that yes, in isolation, Messi probably could have started on Saturday and been fine to tear Spurs several new orifices on Wednesday night in London. But this is a 31-year-old footballer with 10 seasons in a row of 50+ games for club and country – he might be outrageously fit (he is outrageously fit), he might have one of the best records in the league when it comes to avoiding serious injuries, but he remains 31 years old with more miles in his legs than almost any other player his age on the planet. 

The point of resting players is to prevent problems further down the line. Once they've got that first niggle, you're starting down a path of ifs and buts and maybes and doubts – if Barcelona are to actually challenge in the Champions League beyond April this year, they need Messi to not just be available, but to be firing on all cylinders. 

For a couple of seasons now, Barcelona have been warned that they have to prepare for a future without Messi, but it's the present without Messi that's proving a problem right now. The supporting cast isn't quite there yet – Coutinho isn't Iniesta, Dembele isn't Neymar, absolutely nobody is Xavi and Luis Suarez isn't even Luis Suarez until about December. 

That's all without looking at the defence, which...Gerard Pique looks absolutely done, Samuel Umtiti is out for a long ol' time and...then there's Clement Lenglet and Thomas Vermaelen. 

There's not going to be any great meltdown on the pitch, this isn't even close to a Manchester United situation, but a season without a league or Champions League will likely spell the end for Ernesto Valverde's reign, so short is his leash after winning the league in 'not a Barcelona way'. 

If that happens this summer, the institutional crisis returns with a vengeance. A minor civil war over whether to opt for a Cruyffist or a pragmatist to succeed Valverde is inevitable, and the wrangling will – like as not – either paralyse the club in the transfer market or push it towards a statement signing for the sake of a statement signing. For a squad which needs smart regeneration in key areas, that lack of a sensible, considered middle ground is dangerous in the short and medium term. 

Barcelona aren't in crisis. But they're speeding towards a precipice, and the brake cable is beginning to fray.

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