“We are a weak team who can be beaten with enough intensity and enthusiasm.” That was Lionel Messi’s brutal assessment of this current Barcelona side as they surrendered their La Liga advantage after football’s restart and watched Real Madrid take their crown.
While the maestro and his team-mates were back on song for the 3-1 win in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Napoli, those words – told to Spanish TV after an embarrassing home defeat to 10-man Osasuna – remain ominous ahead of a quarter-final with Bayern Munich.
The German giants have their sights set on their second-ever treble after crushing their domestic rivals. They have won all eight of their Champions League fixtures this season. And their demolition of Chelsea on Saturday was an emphatic example of their quality.
Unlike a Napoli team which had faded from the force they were before lockdown, this Bayern side will bring intensity and enthusiasm into this quarter-final. In Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz on Friday night, Barca will face a daunting test.
Bayern will also arrive in Portugal with Robert Lewandowski in full flight. The Polish striker has confirmed his status as one of the modern era’s greatest goal scorers this season, finding the net 53 times in 44 appearances across all competitions.
While quality abounds through this Bayern side, their frontman will be the one Barcelona fear.
Chelsea’s defence has well-documented problems and Lewandowski feasted on that weakness, scoring three times and recording four assists during the 7-1 aggregate thrashing of Frank Lampard’s side.With that show of strength, Lewandowski became the first player in 15 years to record over three goals and three assists in a Champions League tie but given he has struck in each of his seven appearances in this competition – and leads the way with 13 goals overall – Chelsea aren’t the first to feel his force on the European stage this season.
Remarkably, his return of a goal every 47 minutes in the 2019/20 edition means he has the best strike rate of any player in history for a single season of the European Cup/Champions League (min. 500mins).
Barcelona have the previously-suspended Sergio Busquets back for this one and how they’ll need him to cut off the supply line to Bayern’s star, who will no doubt have centre-backs Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet facing restless nights on the eve of the contest.
Lewandowski’s class in front of goal is not new, of course. He has scored more goals than any foreign player in Bundesliga history and averages 29 league goals per season over the past five seasons. But there is finally momentum behind the campaign to recognise that quality amid the huge numbers routinely posted by Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The cancellation of this season’s Ballon d’Or may be cruelly timed for Lewandowski, who would have been strongly-placed to take the prestigious title from six-time winner Messi.
The Barcelona man takes up his place in the other corner on Friday night for this mouth-watering heavyweight clash of European superpowers and goal-scoring stars.
Messi’s stupendous quality remains, there is no doubt about that. His sumptuous finish and penalty-win against Napoli was a reminder of how he can still drag this Barcelona side to important victories.
And while his 25 goals in 33 La Liga appearances this season was down on the 36 goals in 34 appearances he managed in 2018/19, it was a return still good enough to claim a seventh La Liga golden boot. There was the incredible haul of 21 assists to go with it as well.
But, his Champions League tally for this campaign is just three goals from seven appearances – he is on course for his lowest return since 2006/07 when he was just 20 years old – and it has not been one of his great seasons, collectively or individually.
This Barcelona team under Quique Setien are far from the power they were a few seasons ago, with inconsistency undermining their La Liga title pursuit and a costly record of just one win against the rest of Spain’s top four this season putting a question mark over their ability to deliver when their little magician doesn’t.
With a direct involvement in over 53 per cent of Barcelona’s league goals this season, Messi remains Barcelona’s go-to man. And the onus on him to perform on Friday night is clear.
If he is unable to match the levels Lewandowski looks so likely to bring, a Champions League exit and trophyless season will be on the cards – just the second season of Messi’s career when he hasn’t got his hands on some form of major silverware.
That is a situation Barcelona can hardly afford with Messi now 33 years old, out of contract in 2021 and, for the first time, facing genuine questions over what his next step will be.
Come kick-off on Friday evening, though, his focus will be solely on that Champions League quarter-final. But will his “weak” team be able to summon up the strength to see off the might of Lewandoski and Bayern Munich?