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Ronald Koeman: "I’m not confident Lionel Messi will stay at Barcelona – but I am hopeful”
Speaking exclusively to The Athletic, the Barcelona manager reveals the depth of the rift between player and club after a tumultuous summer in which the legendary Argentine looked destined to leave the city he has become synonymous with.
Once perennial favourites to lift the famous trophy, this iteration of the Blaugrana outfit has endured ritual humiliation in the latter stages of the competition over recent years.
The scars of infamous collapses against Roma in 2018 and that night at Anfield a year later were there for all to see as Barcelona were humbled once again during an 8-2 mauling at the hands of the German champions.
It was the first time the club had conceded eight goals in 74 years, the first time they had lost by a six-goal margin in more than 60 years – and it was the final straw for outgoing manager Quique Setien.
The 62-year-old, a surprise successor to Ernesto Valverde, was given his marching orders three days later after just 25 games in charge at the Nou Camp.
But Setien’s dismissal did little to quell the tremors of discontent resonating through the club, proving instead to be the catalyst behind an extraordinary summer saga that began with the unthinkable: Lionel Messi’s official transfer request.
In late August, after nearly two decades in Catalonia, the 33-year-old informed his team-mates and the Barcelona hierarchy of his desire to leave, believing he could utilise a clause in his contract to walk away from the club on a free transfer.
It was against this backdrop that former Everton manager Ronald Koeman departed from his role as Netherlands national team boss to take charge at the Nou Camp on a two-year deal.
I still don't see Leo Messi in another shirt other than the Barcelona shirt.
- Ronald Koeman
A club legend with four league titles and a European Cup to his name as a Barcelona player, Koeman might have hoped to enjoy his dream homecoming under different circumstances.
But speaking exclusively to The Athletic’s Alan Shearer during a rare in-depth interview about his first six months in charge, the Dutchman confessed the ramifications of a turbulent summer are still being felt by both the team and their talismanic forward.
“It was a difficult time because he's still the best player, but he was angry,” Koeman explained.
“He was not happy that he was in a team who lost 8-2 against Bayern Munich.
“He wanted to leave. I said to the club, 'okay, it's not my problem. It's a problem between the club and Leo Messi. And you have to resolve that'.
“Finally the club said, 'okay, we don't make a transfer for him. He needs to stay'. It was a difficult time for Leo but he finally accepted [the situation].
“I spoke to him in his house before we started the season, and I made plans with him and he was really enthusiastic. Finally, little by little, he accepted that situation.”
Koeman will not need reminding that the threat of Messi’s departure remains a real possibility in the coming months, with serious suitors from the Premier League and MLS monitoring the situation closely.
In recent days, the relationship between player and club was dealt a further blow when confidential details of the Argentine superstar’s lucrative contract were leaked and published by the Spanish press.
Commenting on the leak, Koeman called for those responsible to be sacked, suggesting someone with “bad intentions” had sought to deliberately “damage” Barcelona.
Despite this latest crisis, the Argentinian superstar was in typically masterful form as he scored his 650th Barcelona goal with a sumptuous free-kick during a vital 2-1 win against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night.
The result moved Koeman’s side up into second, ahead of rivals Real Madrid on goal difference but trailing Atletico Madrid, who still have a game in hand on both their title rivals, by ten points.
Even prior to his most-recent jaw-dropping strike at the Nou Camp, no one at the club was in any doubt about his enduring importance to a team in dire need of leadership on the pitch.
For now, a delicate truce exists that will see Messi (755) surpass Xavi (767) to become Barcelona’s all-time record appearance maker at some point this season.
But beyond that?
“Nobody knows what will happen in the future,” Koeman added.
“I'm not confident [that he’ll stay] but I'm hopeful. Yes because he's still a great player and he's still winning matches for the team.
“I still don't see Leo Messi in another shirt other than the Barca shirt.”
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