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'A giant step backwards' - Barcelona bow out of title race as Messi nears the end

It is shaping up to be a seismic summer at Camp Nou, with the league crown all but out of reach and their captain's future still not sorted

Five months of hard work went to waste on Spain’s east coast, as Barcelona slumped to a messy 3-3 draw with Levante and bowed out of the title race this week.

Mathematically it’s still possible for the Catalans to win La Liga, but their calculators would be better used working on formulas to keep captain Lionel Messi, whose contract is drawing ever closer to the end.

Unless the Argentine star signs a new deal, of which the club are hopeful, Sunday’s clash with Celta Vigo will be his last game at Camp Nou in a Barcelona shirt.

It would be a sad ending for the greatest player in their history, to leave in a match without supporters to send him off, but almost fitting as Barcelona’s failures when it matters most have hurt him deeply.

Messi looked reinvigorated from the turn of the year, with 22 goals and eight assists in 20 Liga matches, but the defeats by Real Madrid, Granada and finally this draw with Levante have cost the Catalans their shot at an unlikely double.

They roped in Atletico’s 12-point lead and they were there for the taking, but in the clash at Camp Nou last weekend Barcelona were impotent, when they might have moved top.

Like in 2014, when Atletico won the league with a draw on the last day of the season at Barcelona, they didn’t have enough fight to extinguish the visitors’ fire.

The Copa del Rey trophy will be Barca's only reward for a season of transition under Ronald Koeman, whose own future is also on the line. Joan Laporta met with the Dutch coach in a restaurant near the new president’s offices in Les Corts on Thursday, where he asked Koeman for his thoughts on what had gone wrong.

“We took a giant step backwards,” lamented the former Netherlands boss on Tuesday night. Barcelona’s chief is still weighing up whether Koeman has done enough to stay on for the second year of his contract, with his solid man-management at times betrayed by a lack of tactical nous.

The saving grace, for Koeman, may be a lack of decent alternatives, along with his good work with Pedri Gonzalez and La Masia youngsters Oscar Mingueza and Ilaix Moriba.

Koeman also took over the club during a period of sporting and economic crisis, and has undoubtedly steadied the ship. Messi will need more though to be convinced, and Barcelona are thought to be close to announcing the signing of Sergio Aguero from Manchester City on a free transfer.

The striker is close with Messi, his Argentine compatriot, and he may take the spot held by Martin Braithwaite in the squad, with Laporta looking to sign another big name up front, per reports in the Catalan capital.

Above all, what Messi wants is a winning project, a team that he believes he can conquer Europe with again, as he approaches his 34th birthday. More quality will need to be added and it remains to be seen if the signing of Eric Garcia is enough.

Erling Haaland is the primary target, although several clubs are interested and Barcelona will need to move some big earners on to finance the deal. Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti and others are slated for the exit, while Ousmane Dembele may join them.

The French forward had his best game in weeks against Levante, but has only one year to go on his deal. Barcelona will have to sell him in the summer to avoid him leaving for nothing, if he won’t put pen to paper on an extension.

The forward was on target in the clash at Ciutat de Valencia stadium and, now that he has found fitness, will have plenty of suitors, and more if he has a strong Euro 2020 campaign with France.

Few were up to Dembele’s level against Levante on Tuesday, with Barcelona lacking the gumption and steel that Atletico and Real Madrid showed on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

Atletico swept aside Real Sociedad and held on in the final stages after the Basques pulled a goal back, winning 2-1, while Real Madrid were two goals up against Granada, and when Jorge Molina scored, they went and netted two more.

Barcelona led by two but let it slip, and when Dembele struck the third, again they were pegged back, with Sergio Leon’s strike ending their title charge.

Koeman’s side were left four short of leaders Atletico with just six points left to be won, while Real Madrid sit between them in second place.

The last time Barcelona finished outside the top two was in 2008, with Frank Rijkaard at the helm. Then, Laporta appointed Pep Guardiola, against the odds, and it worked magnificently.

Now? Barcelona and Messi need the president to have a trick or two up his sleeve this summer.

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