By 90Min
May 08, 2019

The term 'Deus ex Machina' usually refers to a character or event in a story who appears to exist solely to solve a problem that until then seemed insolvable. It roughly translates from Latin, via Ancient Greek, to mean 'God from the Machinery', and is a contrived plot device that essentially represents divine intervention incarnate, usually when a storyteller is too lazy to think of another way out.

'Deus ex Messi' therefore refers to the numerous times Lionel Messi has improbably, unrealistically, even divinely(?) intervened to save Barcelona. The times he has GOATed, and we have sat back, marvelled, and then, armed with an armada of GOAT emojis, conveyed this wonder.

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Naturally, this phenomenon creates certain expectations; glorifying a person that, until sufficient proof is provided, remains just that, faults and all. To be clear, this isn't an attempt to completely absolve the Argentine of any blame for his side's inconceivable Champions League semi final second leg defeat to Liverpool on Tuesday night. He was just as culpable as anyone else, if not more, but that's part of the problem. 

It is also not designed to single out the number ten, especially not after we collectively jumped on the GOATwagon just a week ago, gloating about our privilege to be able to watch such a master during our lifetime.

It's just that if, like on Tuesday night, Messi isn't capable of playing the Deus role, who is? And where does it leave the team?

Now, I've been told plenty of times by people more clued up on La Liga than me (they've got Eleven Sports and everything!?!?!) that this title-winning Barca side is one of the most cohesive the club have seen since Pep Guardiola departed. That may be true - certainly their nine-point lead at the top of the table, and 15-point gap between Real Madrid would attest to it - but then why did they crumble so comprehensively at Anfield? 

Of course, the caveats of Liverpool's exemplary performers on the pitch and in the terraces must be stated, but it is no coincidence that La Blaugrana have now relinquished first leg leads in three of their last four Champions League exits - two of them coming after possessing three-goal buffers.

Indeed, it also can't be a coincidence that the only outlier in that bunch is the 2016/17 ousting by Juventus in the quarter finals, where they lost 3-0 in the first leg in what was the only tie where they didn't have home advantage first. 

That makes three exits from four since their triumph in 2014/15 where they have gone out thanks to 3-0 losses. Yes, the Champions League is a cruel mistress, and often sides who have appeared far less impressive than their rivals - take Real Madrid in at least two of the last five seasons - can win it. But, regardless of talent or tactics, and at the risk of sounding too much like Graeme Souness (you hate to see it), there is one thing that UCL winners all have in common, and that is an unerring mixture of belief and confidence.

Sometimes it's enough, sometimes it isn't, but it's always necessary. And it's what Barcelona have been missing in recent times, in part because of their over-reliance on Messi. 

And I get it. Why wouldn't you choose to put all your eggs in the Leo basket? Nine and a half times out of ten (or nine and three quarters, if you want to lean into his magical side) he'll deliver the goods. But when he doesn't, like against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico or against Liverpool on Tuesday, you find yourself stranded. 

When Barcelona have won the Champions League, they have done it as a collective, but one usually born out of an otherworldly trio in midfield or up front. Yes, this is probably reductive and will obviously negate the massive influence of several defining defenders, yes, I'm going to do it anyway.

In 2006 it was Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o. In 2009 it was Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi. In 2011 it was both Pedro, David Villa and Messi AND the aforementioned trio (there's a reason they were 'The World's Team'). In 2015 it was Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi. 

In 2019 it was...? Well, there's been a few that threatened to take hold, but only for fleeting moments. Largely, though, those people brought into become either the next Iniesta/Xavi/Busquets or MSN, or an amalgam of both, have failed. 

Dembele's form has been dotted at best. Arthur Melo has been impressive, but not decisive. Malcom has been non-existent. Philippe Coutinho: disastrous. As for the old guard, Busquets, stripped of the control that his compadres brought him, has looked off the pace, ditto Rakitic. Suarez is still the unrelenting sh*thouse and unrivalled competitor he always has been, just without the consistent performance levels or enduring fitness to back it up.

Gerard Pique just looks washed. 

And so, invariably, it comes back to Messi. And when his mental and technical fortitude fail him, they fail Barcelona. 

'But hold on, I can think of at least one relevant side who were without two-thirds of one established trio on Tuesday night, and yet they still managed to triumph, didn't they?' a man with YNWA tattooed on his forehead says. And he's right. 

But that's the difference. Whereas Liverpool, imbued by their raucous stadium and their two-legged European specialist of a manager, were able to overcome the odds with their grit and their fight and their might, without the help of Messi, the visitors could not. 


'Deus ex Messi'


Messi is both a machine and a God. But in that way, he is beyond the control of his teammates. They can't will him to do extraterrestrial things, they have to wish it. And when it doesn't come, especially in a cauldron such as Anfield, they have no other answer - the complacency with which this reliance comes hand in hand in with cannot be shook.

Sometimes it's a blessing, sometimes it's a curse, but it appears that in the confines of elite European football, it's not enough. Not in this age. For now, it's 'Deus ex Divock'.

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