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Messi to the rescue again - but time is running out for Barcelona to prove they deserve his loyalty

08-Feb-2021, 05:51 am

Messi Pedri Barcelona 2021

Match statistics: Real Betis 2-3 Barcelona

Masked and with his head in his hands after another attacking move broke down, the Argentine must have wondered when, not if, he would be called upon to put it right by Ronald Koeman.

Messi was one of a number of first-team regulars who were left on the bench for the Liga clash, with a Copa del Rey semi-final against Sevilla to come on Wednesday and the first-leg of their Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain only nine days away.

Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Sergino Dest were also kept in reserve, but it was Messi's absence from the starting line-up that was most keenly felt.

Without him, Barca struggled to create, with the in-form Antoine Griezmann clearly failingto make anything happen without Messi there to take the attention of Betis defenders away from him.

The visitorsdid not muster a shot on target, nor concede a foul in a tepid 45 minutes of football.

It took until the 56th minute before Koeman finally relented, his side 1-0 down to Borja Iglesias' close-range finish whilethe introduction of Pedri at half-time had done little to alter the pattern of the game.

Within 136 seconds, Barca were level, Messi firing in a low strike from the edge of the box after cutting inside onto his left-foot.

Within 12 minutes of his introductionthey were ahead, as Messi's superbly weighted, first-time ball allowed Jordi Alba to cross for Griezmann, who in turn saw his botched effort bobble in off Betis defender Victor Ruiz for an own goal.

If it was not clear before, it is now - for all that they try, Barca can only continue to consistently function if Messi is around.

The Camp Nou outfit were unbeaten in their six games without Messi this season before Sunday's clash, but those matches included two Champions League dead rubbers, a Copa match against third-division opposition and league fixtures against two of the current bottom four sides.

But faced with a side that is challenging for European qualification under Manuel Pellegrini, they could not cope without their talisman.

All that again brings up the huge elephant that continues to sit in the Camp Nou centre circle as Barcatoil both on and off the field: Messi's future.

The past week has again been dominated with talk of what happens at the end of the season for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner;from Angel Di Maria calling for his compatriot to join him at PSG to Koeman hitting out the media for relentlessly questioning him on the subject.

As revealed byGoalon Thursday, Messi is yet to make any decision on his future, with reports of ongoing talks with clubs such as PSG and Manchester City wide of the mark.

But sat waiting to come on in Seville he must have wondered whether, as he approaches his 34th birthday, he still wants to be the one, and seemingly only player who can get Barca over the line against even mediocre opposition.

With the club in financial turmoil, there is unlikely to be any kind of big-money arrival who can take the pressure off Messi should he decide to stay, and though teenagers Pedri and Ansu Fati have both shown themselves to be capable of producing moments of magic, they should not be burdened with more responsibility they can handle, particularly ifFati's struggles to recover from knee surgery have a lasting effect on his game.

And though it was not Messi who proved to the match-winner on Sunday, with fellow substitute Francisco Trincao curling home the winning goal in the 3-2 victory three minutes from time after Ruiz had atoned for his earlier error with a goal at the right end, it is clear the result would not have been possible without his intervention.

Does he really still have the drive to carry this side to victoryover teamsthey should be beating with ease while potentially continuing to fail at the highest level?

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