If Lionel Messi isn’t happy at Barcelona, it was impossible to tell on Saturday when he scored two goals in another masterful performance to brush aside Athletic Bilbao and win the Copa del Rey.
Messi climbed into the tribune after leading the 4-0 win and lifted the trophy high above his head and turned to his team on the pitch below.
For his teammates, coach, and millions of anxious fans, it was easy to read so much into that broad grin, that vigorous shake of the huge cup.
Was Messi finally seeing the folly of ever thinking he could find a better home?
Or was the club's all-time leading scorer relieved that he could give Barcelona at least one more title before saying goodbye?
Messi did not mention his future after he received the trophy from Spain’s King Felipe VI, one of the few dignitaries along with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in attendance at a stadium closed to fans due to coronavirus restrictions.
Instead, Messi focused on those who were not able to share in the celebration.
“This is a very special cup for me to lift,” Messi said. “It is too bad we cannot celebrate it with our family and fans. But that is the situation we have to accept.”
Even though Messi avoided the burning question of his plans, his great game will raise hopes for Barcelona fans of the soccer great staying at Camp Nou.
And for Joan Laporta, who returned to the club’s presidency last month, Messi should have an easy choice ahead of him.
“Leo is the best player in the world, Leo has deep roots in this club, and I am convinced that he wants to stay,” Laporta said. “We will do all we can for him to stay with us. That is what we most want. And today Messi gave a master class of soccer while being supported by a great team.”
Barcelona’s record 31st cup comes at a crucial junction for Messi and Barcelona. Barcelona has seen its finances badly damaged by the pandemic and its former president Josep Bartomeu was forced to resign after the team’s poor performance last season when it failed to win a title and alleged administrative irregularities. Bartomeu has denied any wrongdoing.
But the peak of the club’s crisis came last summer when Messi said that he wanted to put an end to his highly successful two decades with Barcelona. Since then, he has only said he will make a decision when his contract is up at the end of this season.
The cup, however, puts an end to a title drought since Barcelona won the 2019 Spanish league.
“It has been a difficult year, but like in life, sometimes you fall down and just have to get back up,” said Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who excelled in shutting down Bilbao’s counterattack.
“This is like starting anew, a reset … I think we have turned this around.”
Bilbao has now lost two Copa del Rey finals this month at La Cartuja Stadium in Seville. Bilbao lost 1-0 to Real Sociedad just two weeks ago when they met in the 2020 final that had been postponed due to the pandemic. Sociedad’s reign as Copa champion lasted all of 14 days.
“We were far from our best,” said Bilbao coach Marcelino García Toral. “And even playing our your best it is tough to beat Barça.”
Only some tenacious defending in its area kept Bilbao in the match until Barcelona erupted with four goals between the 60th and 72nd minutes.
The bombardment started in the fifth when Messi set up Frenkie de Jong, who played a perfect aide to Messi throughout the match, to hit the post.
The second half continued with Messi dictating the pace, and now Unai Simón had to save Bilbao.
But the Spain goalkeeper could do nothing to deny Antoine Griezmann in the 60th minute. Griezmann's sliced in a one-touch strike off De Jong’s cross from the right after Messi had again taken the ball and forced Bilbao to scramble back into its box.
With Bilbao reeling, Barcelona struck again in the 63rd — this time from the left. Messi also played a subtle part in this goal, making a dummy run to open space for De Jong to push forward and head in Jordi Alba’s cross.
De Jong then helped Messi slalom through Bilbao from near the middle of the field into the heart of the area by exchanging two quick passing combinations with the star. Messi capped the move by dribbling past the last defender before slotting in his team’s third goal in the 68th.
Messi rounded off his stellar performance that earned him a 35th career title for Barcelona when he fired in a pass from Alba.
Messi had again showed, at age 33, that he can still completely dominate a final.
But hanging over the cup was what it truly meant to the inscrutable Argentine.
For coach Ronald Koeman, with his team also in the league title race, nothing has changed. It is up to Messi to decide, while Koeman crosses his fingers.
“Messi showed he is a born winner,” Koeman said after claiming his first title since the former defender returned to coach the club last summer.
“We hope this is not Messi’s last Copa. We want him to stay with us."