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Will a league and cup double be enough to convince Messi to stay at Barcelona?

08:00 GMT 20/03/2021
Lionel Messi Ronald Koeman Barcelona GFX
The Catalans have had a remarkable turnaround in form since the start of the year thanks largely to their Argentine talisman and coach Ronald Koeman

It’s almost as if Lionel Messi and Barcelona made a New Year’s resolution simply to be good again.

A dismal 1-1 draw with Eibar post-Christmas seemed to write the club’s title hopes off for good, but the Catalans have taken 34 points from 36 since the turn of the year in La Liga, relentlessly constricting faltering leaders Atletico Madrid to a four-point gap.

Fundamental in that run has been Messi, back on his perch as the best player in the world and in a remarkable run of form, and coach Ronald Koeman, after a shaky start to life in charge of his former side.

The Dutchman seemed doomed to be another transient drifter on a bench which has seen five others come and go since Pep Guardiola left in 2012, but after an initial bout of stubbornness he has become more tactically flexible, and it’s working.

Barcelona started the season in shambles, licking their wounds, still reeling from their 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich in August and Messi’s request to leave. A draw with Sevilla, toothless defeat at Getafe and a home defeat by Real Madrid in the Clasico showed this was a team that needed a lot of work.

Barcelona drew at Alaves and then suffered another defeat against a title rival, Atletico, again highlighting the team’s weaknesses. Losing at Cadiz was a humiliation, followed by a 3-0 Camp Nou hammering by Juventus, which saw them finish second in their Champions League group.

Koeman had refused to change from his 4-2-3-1, despite criticism, but he used a 4-3-3 against Levante in a 1-0 win on December 13. It was a tentative step forward but importantly it marked a turning point in Koeman’s thinking. He would grow more willing to modify his set-up, with a 3-5-2 offering the club’s best performances in 2021.

The pivotal change has been in Messi, but part of the reason the Argentine has picked himself back up has been Koeman’s management and the green shoots coming through at Camp Nou.

From day one, the coach trusted teenager Pedri Gonzalez. Barcelona were considering loaning him out after his summer arrival from Las Palmas, but Koeman liked what he saw in training and gave the then-17-year-old Spaniard wings.

Pedri has formed a tight relationship with Messi on the pitch, allowing him to play the same kind of pass-and-move football he enjoyed when Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Dani Alves were close to him on the pitch.

Messi also sees Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza and Ilaix Moriba coming through from Barca B, showing the future is bright at the club. Koeman, tasked with renewing an ageing and broken team, has put his faith in youth and they have responded well.

Players like Miralem Pjanic have been left by the wayside, regardless of his status in the game, because Koeman believes that the youngsters can offer more, both now and in the future.

Given his time at the club may be limited, blooding La Masia talents is an unselfish decision on behalf of a club that he truly loves.

The coach gave Messi the time and space he needed to get his head straight, never putting too much pressure on him, while singling out others including Antoine Griezmann and even his midfield favourite Frenkie de Jong.

Once Messi started to believe in the players around him, he started to focus on what he did best.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying in the first half of the season, but he was distracted and hurting, trying and failing to recapture his best form. Since January and a refresh, a break from football, he has snapped into focus and at times is nigh on unstoppable.

Ask Keylor Navas, who saw Messi’s missile rip past him in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Paris Saint-Germain. Messi has 14 goals and six assists in 11 La Liga games in this calendar year, and scored in both legs of the last 16 clashes with PSG, even as Barcelona were eliminated.

Even by his lofty standards, this is good going.

Reports in Spain suggest Barcelona players are happier in training now, working harder than under Quique Setien, improving their intensity levels and performances later in games, as well as their pressing. The team have played more extra-time periods this season than in any other in their history - five - and yet look in fine physical shape.

Barcelona often struggle at this point of the season but Koeman’s team are going from strength to strength. After the 2-0 Copa del Rey semi-final defeat by Sevilla, Barcelona turned things around with a 3-0 win in the second leg, after extra-time, showing new-found belief in a situation that would have been too much for them to overcome last season.

Koeman has reinvigorated and even reinvented De Jong, after a hit-and-miss debut season, while also making Barcelona’s €105 million (£90m/$125m) investment in Ousmane Dembele look much less of an abomination than it has seemed for three years. The Frenchman is in his best form since joining.

With Joan Laporta’s arrival as the club’s new president and a potential double to play for in the run-in, things are looking up.

The president gave a speech to Messi and others on Wednesday as he was sworn in at Camp Nou. Barcelona fans scanned the images like amateur detectives, searching for clues as to Messi’s future, deciding the Argentine was grinning behind his protective mask as Laporta made overtures to him.

“We're going to try and convince him to stay because he's the best ever and, forgive me for this Leo, but I love you and Barca loves you, too,” said Laporta.

"If this stadium was full, I'm sure you couldn't leave.”

Messi insists he won’t decide his future until the end of the season, but if he has two more trophies in his vast collection, young and hungry team-mates by his side, a president he trusts, and finally — yes — a project, leaving may not have the allure it did last summer.