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Messidependencia: €400m spent on forwards yet Barcelona still reliant on Leo

4:00 PM EDT 8/24/19
Griezmann Messi Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho has been exiled, Ousmane Dembele is injured again while Antoine Griezmann has made an inauspicious start to his Camp Nou career

Barcelona fans last week were given another reminder of what life will be like once the unthinkable happens and Lionel Messi moves on.

They had made no breakthrough against Athletic Club in the first game of the Liga season by the time 38-year-old forward Aritz Aduriz netted a spectacular scissors-kick in injury time.

Despite all that money spent on Ousmane Dembele, on Philippe Coutinho and on Antoine Griezmann in the past two years – their three most expensive signings ever – Messi remains irreplaceable.

Griezmann is already on the back foot in the eyes of the Spanish press following an inept debut that will have done nothing to quell talk of a comeback for Neymar, while the other two can be classified along the scale of outright to qualified failures.

Coutinho has joined Bayern Munich on loan having failed to convince in Catalunya and is expected to complete a permanent move to Bavaria next summer.

Doubts remain over Dembele, meanwhile, because of his injuries and inconsistency.

Given that both Coutinho and Dembele were effectively signed with the proceeds of Neymar's €222 million (£200m/$245m) sale to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, it is fair to say neither have provided value for money.

There is no doubting the skill of the World Cup-winning Frenchman, but Dembele has tested the patience of the club and their fans since arriving from Borussia Dortmund a couple of years ago as a replacement for Paris-bound Neymar.

The fees involved are astronomical. Coutinho is the second most expensive player of all time at €140m (£127m/$155m). Dembele held that spot briefly when he joined for an initial €105m (£95m/$116m). Griezmann, meanwhile, came in at a cost of €120m (£109/$133m) from Atletico Madrid this summer.

Throw in the €41m (£37m/$45m) fee paid to Bordeaux for Malcom – before he was shipped off to Zenit this summer – and that’s more than €400m (£360/$440m) on four players all bought with the express purpose of diversifying the attack from its Messi-dependence. 

That’s not to say those four are bad players. Plus, it’s far too early to write off Griezmann even if he is at best an ersatz Messi.

But it speaks to the gap that Messi has opened between himself and other mortals who consider themselves attackers.

Barca can’t wean themselves off Messi by spending €100m, €200m or even €400m. The reckoning will come someday but for now they can console themselves that a) he remains the best player in the world and b) he is theirs.

Messi came back into Barcelona training this week having suffered the muscle injury on August 5 which meant he missed the start of the season. Barca, of course, went down in Bilbao without him.

Despite that, he has not proven his fitness enough to face Real Betis on Sunday evening. The last time the club failed to win either of their opening couple of games was back in 2008-09, when Pep Guardiola was finding his feet.

With a team containing Messi, Barca should have enough to win, no matter what is going on around him. Without him and it becomes anyone's game.

Given that Dembele will be absent until well into September and Luis Suarez is injured as well, it’s a good thing Messi should be back sooner rather than later. This is a Barca team badly in need of a boost.

Despite winning the title last season, there was outright rancour directed towards the coach Ernesto Valverde and other board members come the end of the campaign.

They were looking good for a treble at one stage, before a meek Champions League semi-final second-leg surrender at Anfield. Then they contrived to miss out on the Copa del Rey, losing in the final to Valencia.

Valverde was reckoned at one stage to be close to losing his job, but he survived, much to the annoyance of sections of the Barca support.

Since then, they have added not only Griezmann but also Frenkie de Jong, as well as Neto and Junior Firpo. De Jong will provide some much-needed drive through the midfield and Griezmann should pitch in with a few goals.

But, ultimately, their fate lies with Messi, as it has done for most of the other 15 seasons he’s spent at the club, during which time he’s been responsible for around 30 per cent of Barca’s entire goal output.

They are no closer to diversifying, to weaning themselves off, to moving on. Once again it’ll all fall on Messi to keep them in the hunt for trophies.