The 2019-20 football season, interrupted by the worst global public health emergency for more than a century, comes to a close with a final sprint in the Champions League as UEFA aims to crown a winner in Lisbon less than a month from now.
But for the game’s two biggest megastars, this frantic finish might well be bringing with it a sense of dread rather than anticipation.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s stars remain undiminished; the two teams that surround them, however, leave a lot to be desired.
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As a venue for the hastily re-arranged knockout stages, Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz — the famous old stadium which will share hosting duties with Sporting’s Estadio Jose Alvalade for the quarterfinals and semifinals before holding the showpiece final on Aug. 23 — could hardly be more fitting.
Outside the ground stands a statue in loving memory of Eusebio, the Mozambique-born striker who became arguably the first superstar of ‘modern’ European football. He took Benfica to European Cup glory in 1961-62 and, three years later, won the Ballon d’Or — the first man born outside Europe to hold the prestigious prize.
With more than 400 goals for the Portuguese giants, 11 league titles and also a World Cup Golden Boot award in 1966 for Portugal, the late striker’s legacy as an all-time great is safe. But his exploits, and those of countless legends, have been eclipsed by the new heights to which Messi and Ronaldo have taken the game over the past decade and a half.
The chances of those two adding to their incredible records over the next three weeks nevertheless appear slim.
The Argentina and Portugal captains, at 33 and 35 respectively, are entering the twilight of their careers. On the evidence of the past 12 months, even if Barcelona and Juventus manage to squeeze through their last-16 clashes, the pair on their own will not be enough to make up the deficit and lead their teams to Champions League glory.
Both clubs throughout 2019-20 were hopelessly dependent on their stars, who were called on time and time again to rescue them from uncomfortable situations. Needless to say, they rarely failed.
Messi hit 25 goals in La Liga to retain his Pichichi top scorer crown for a fourth consecutive season, while Ronaldo’s haul of 31 was second only to Lazio’s Ciro Immobile in Serie A.
Behind them, though, there was little to stir supporters’ imaginations.
Barca had slogged their way to the Liga summit under the uninspiring yet effective Ernesto Valverde at the start of 2020, but threw that hard work away with the kamikaze decision to dismiss the coach and replace him with Quique Setien, whose biggest footballing feat to date had been a Europa League run at Real Betis.
From that moment onward, the Catalans, hindered further by a series of boardroom blunders that bordered on farcical at times, proceeded to surrender their advantage to Real Madrid, finishing five points behind their rivals after entering January two points ahead.
The gap might have been wider still had the coronavirus pandemic not intervened, giving Luis Suarez time to recover from potentially season-ending knee surgery. The Uruguayan was the only player other than Messi to hit double figures in the league, with Antoine Griezmann contributing a paltry nine to his side’s cause.
“Our fans are running out of patience, and that’s understandable, because we aren’t giving them anything,” Messi fired to reporters after July’s defeat to Osasuna which handed Madrid the title.
“This game shows what we have been all year: an inconsistent, weak team, which can be beaten by intensity, commitment, and which gives up chances and goals. Playing this way it will be difficult to win the Champions League. If we want to fight we have to change a lot, otherwise we are going to lose against Napoli too.”
If Ronaldo and Juventus avoided such a debacle domestically to take a record ninth straight Scudetto, it was less a reflection on the merits of Maurizio Sarri’s charges than on the absence of a rival like Madrid to push them all the way.
While Zinedine Zidane’s side ground out result after result to overtake the leaders post-lockdown, Juve benefited from Inter’s inconsistency, a horrific run of injuries that foiled Lazio at the final hurdle and two soft penalties to avoid defeat to Atalanta.
Even so, they finished just a point clear of the Nerazzurri, losing four and drawing two of their last eight Serie A outings.
Their reliance on a single player helped paper over the cracks in Sarri’s debut season, during which the players never looked entirely comfortable with the faster, more furious pace demanded of them by the ex-Chelsea boss.
Behind Ronaldo, only Paulo Dybala — with 11 goals — managed double figures, while Juve’s tally of 43 goals conceded marked a huge deterioration on the 30 allowed in the previous campaign.
They may have held on to the title, but it was swashbuckling Atalanta, not the flustered Old Lady, who established themselves Italy’s most dangerous, exciting side to watch over the past 12 months.
In such a context it perhaps is no surprise to see exit rumors hover once more above the forward, with reports in France linking him to a blockbuster Paris Saint-Germain switch in the days leading up to the Champions League’s restart.
Despite those failings, as well as the 1-0 deficit Juve carry against Lyon going into Friday’s second leg in Turin, Sarri’s men will nevertheless be favorites to advance to Lisbon. If nothing else, it is because the French side might be a little ring rusty having just returned from five months off. But if the form book holds, that will be as far as they are likely to venture.
Both Madrid and Manchester City, the Italians’ potential quarterfinal rivals, are better teams, more organized and more coherent than the newly crowned Serie A kings, While the single-game format allows more than enough margin for upsets, it is hard to see Juve overcoming such a formidable hurdle in their current state.
The outlook for Barca is even bleaker; their reward for potentially downing Napoli following the first-leg 1-1 draw looks certain to be a meeting with Bayern Munich at the Estadio da Luz, which could prove as chastening a mismatch as their infamous 7-0 aggregate thrashing back in 2013.
Both Messi and Ronaldo, with 11 Ballons d’Or between them, remain at the top of the sport even as the years continue to roll by. In terms of individual talent and sheer impact nobody from the chasing pack can seriously hope to challenge the duo, who will continue to score goals and smash records with dizzying regularity for some time yet.
Unless their invaluable presence is supplemented by an adequate support staff, though, the pair’s aspirations to contend for further Champions League honors could finally be coming to an end.
The onus is on Barcelona and Juventus to get their houses in order and make the most of these two phenomenal talents, who have been shortchanged throughout 2019-20 by problems beyond even their omnipotent reach.
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