Football Features

Barcelona and Salah are a post-Messi dream, but who else could replace Leo?

By Chris Smith

Published: 17:45, 22 December 2020

He might have stayed put at Barcelona for this season, but the talk of Lionel Messi leaving his beloved club has hardly slowed down.

Scorer of 643 goals (and counting) for Barcelona to equal football’s single-club record set by Pele, winner of a record six Ballon d’Or awards and with an individual trophy cabinet larger than most of the clubs which he’s put to the sword over the years, Messi is an icon, arguably the greatest to ever grace the game.

However, the Argentine ace reportedly came very close to leaving the Camp Nou over the summer. Manchester City were most heavily linked with his signature and even Messi himself admitted he only remained at Barca because he didn’t want to take the club closest to his heart to court over contract disputes.

Links to the likes of Man City and PSG haven’t gone away and Barcelona’s interim president, Carles Tusquets, even claimed Messi leaving  could benefit the club financially. It looks like a new era is fast-approaching in the Catalan region and once Messi does leave, he’s going to need replacing.

So, who could Barca bring in to fill those considerable boots? Let’s take a look at the dream, realistic and wildcard options:

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Dream: Mohamed Salah

One of the few players on the planet who can even come close to matching Messi’s standing in the game, Mohamed Salah has been a force of nature over the past three-and-a-half years since returning to the Premier League with Liverpool.

The ‘Egyptian King’ has netted over 100 goals, lifted Premier League and Champions League titles and elevated himself to a level of global fame few footballers enjoy.

Salah is a boyhood Barcelona fan and refused to rule out a move to the Blaugrana or arch-rivals Real Madrid when pressed on the matter by Spanish outlet, AS, recently.

I think Madrid and Barcelona are two top clubs,’ he said. “Who knows what will happen in the future, but right now I am focused on winning the Premier League and the Champions League with Liverpool again.”

On his future, Salah added: “That’s a tough question, but right now I can say that everything is in the hands of the club. Of course, I want to break records here and, I repeat, all the club records, but everything is in the hands of the club.”

Salah has been compared to Messi in the past, with ex-Arsenal striker Ian Wright saying the two share a ‘similar vibe’ in 2017. Wright’s former manager at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, gave a similar view in December 2019.

“I like the way of his evolution. Because he had touches last night [against Monterrey] of a playmaker,” the Frenchman said in the wake of Liverpool’s Club World Cup win over Monterrey.

“He created chances around the box that are exceptional, there were things of Messi in him last night and I like that a guy who can score so many goals also becomes the guy who gives assists.”

Similarities though there may be, Salah is a different player to Messi. For starters, the former Chelsea man is often accused of being ‘too selfish’, opting to go it alone rather than service his teammates, something you couldn’t accuse of Messi, La Liga’s top assist-provider (46) and chance-creator (298) over the past three-and-a-half seasons. Although in fairness, Salah does rank fourth in the Premier League for assists (31) and fifth for chances created (216) during the same period, so perhaps he is unfairly labelled.

A better stylistic fit for Barcelona may be Salah’s teammate, Sadio Mane. The Senegalese forward has been truly lethal over the past few seasons for Liverpool, fast-approaching 100 goals since joining from Southampton in 2016.

Mane has performed similarly to Messi in terms of his dribbling, chance creation and in the way he draws fouls over the past couple of seasons, the main difference between the two being how effective the Liverpool man is at winning the ball back for his team, although that owes largely to Jurgen Klopp’s style of play and his younger age.

Mane operating from the left would open up a number of propositions for the rest of Barca’s front three, including Griezmann playing through the middle or right flank, while even a front three of Mane, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele would be a terrifying prospect in terms of pace and unpredictability.

However, one can only imagine the monumental fee it would take for Liverpool to part ways with one of their star forwards and core players. To raise the funds, Barcelona would likely have to sell Griezmann or Philippe Coutinho, if not both, or get creative by including one of them in some sort of swap deal. Salah or Mane coming in remains very much a pipedream.

Realistic: Memphis Depay

If it’s financial concerns that are holding Barcelona back from raiding Liverpool, they could do a lot worse than turning their attention to Lyon forward Memphis Depay.

The Netherlands international has reinvented himself since swapping Manchester United for Lyon in 2017, notching an impressive 62 goals and 47 assists in just 154 appearances for the French club across all competitions.

Depay was reportedly ready to join Barca over the summer but the transfer broke down due to financial reasons (yes, that again). However, with the 26-year-old’s contract expiring at the end of June 2021, Lyon must now decide whether to grab what they can for their prized asset now, or lose him on a free at the end of the season.

Reports in France even suggest Lyon are so keen to get something for Depay that they’ll even listen to offers as low as £4.5m this coming January.

The former PSV man is in fine form once again this season, grabbing eight goals and four assists in 16 Ligue 1 appearances so far, helping Lyon to stay right in the thick of the title race alongside the likes of PSG and Lille. His departure would seriously damage Lyon’s bid for a first Ligue 1 crown since 2008 but, again, this could come down to how much money talks.

Should he join Barcelona, Depay wouldn’t necessarily be Messi’s direct replacement. After all, the Dutchman has transitioned to a central striker role since joining Lyon, adept at picking up space between the lines and linking play, alongside his considerable finishing ability and tendency for the spectacular. But his arrival would give Griezmann — a player signed from Atletico Madrid for £120m less than two years ago — an opportunity to become the star.

With just 20 goals to his name in 66 appearances so far, Griezmann hasn’t hit the heights expected of him. However, that may not be exclusively his fault. After all, at any one time, the Frenchman has been overshadowed by Messi, paired with the ‘battering ram’ version of Luis Suarez in a poor stylistic fit, or placed alongside Martin Braithwaite, who simply isn’t cut out for the level expected at Barcelona.

At Atletico Madrid, Griezmann was the main attacking piece. Depay’s movement and positional awareness would effectively open up far more space in which the Frenchman could operate in, allowing him to find goalscoring positions with greater ease and, as such, be Barca’s star forward.

Wildcard: Lautaro Martinez

Another entry with Griezmann in mind, Lautaro Martinez, like Depay, would slot brilliantly into the Blaugrana XI as a central striker, for both similar and differing reasons.

While somewhat inconsistent in front of goal — scoring in each of his first three Serie A appearances this season before enduring a five-game goal drought across all competitions, for example — the Argentina international possesses many of the same qualities as Depay.

For example, Martinez is just as adept at dropping between the lines as Depay, looking to connect the midfield to the attack and create space for strike partner Romelu Lukaku, even if his final ball isn’t quite as refined. Looking at league appearances from the start of the 2018/19 season the two are similar in terms of raw output in the final third, with Martinez averaging 0.54 goals, 1.3 shots on target and 0.33 assists per 90 minutes in Serie A this season, while Depay comes in at 0.64, 1.29 and 0.32, respectively, for those metrics.

There’s no doubting both would be great partners for Griezmann but where the two differ is in Martinez’s ability to lead the press in the final third. While both are playing in sides competing for their respective league titles, it is Martinez who leads the way in terms of tackles per 90 (0.43 – 0.24), interceptions per 90 (0.98 – 0) and possessions won in the attacking third (1.09 – 0.64). His addition could return Barcelona to the upwardly mobile, relentless side on both sides of the ball which made them Spain’s dominant force over the past decade and more.

With Depay reportedly on the market for a mere fraction of the fee that Inter Milan would likely demand for one of their prized assets, it’s hard to see Barcelona parting with the necessary cash.

Squawka Suggests: Darwin Nunez

Barcelona haven’t quite been the same since Suarez lost his mobility. With the Uruguayan icon relocated and thriving with title rivals Atletico Madrid, perhaps it’s time to bring in one of his compatriots to fill the void?

According to Spanish outlet, Sport, the Blaugrana have been keeping tabs on Benfica striker, Darwin Nunez.

Although Nunez has just one Primeira Liga goal to his name this season, he has registered four assists, while he’s also been in top form on the continent, notching five goals and an assist in just five Europa League outings, including a hat-trick in a 4-2 away win at Lech Poznan.

Nunez has experience in Spanish football with 16 goals in 30 Segunda Division appearances for Almeria last season — form which promoted Benfica to spend almost £22m on him over the summer — while he’s also bagged two goals in four senior appearances for the Uruguayan national team.

While not as clinical as the likes of Depay, Nunez has proven himself a strong creator for those around him, laying on the fourth-highest number of big chances per 90 minutes (0.7) in the Portuguese top flight this season, while he has the pace and positional awareness to lead counter-attacks.

Nunez has also won possession in the final third at an average of 1.51 times per 90 minutes this season, the eighth-highest of any player in the Primeira Liga and is strong in the air. Sure, the Uruguayan is a raw talent and there are areas of his game which need work, but he would join Barcelona with a high ceiling and huge upside.

ESPN reported that Barcelona have been keeping tabs on Nunez since his days at Penarol as a 13-year-old and that their interest hasn’t cooled even since he joined Benfica. Given that he joined the Portuguese giants for £22m mere months ago, Nunez is likely to command a high fee, but certainly not within the region of what it would take to secure Martinez.

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