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For Barcelona, a Valuable Point and a Worrying Sign


DORTMUND, Germany — The trouble is that the solution is indistinguishable from the problem. That is the trap that Barcelona cannot quite escape, the Gordian knot that has tangled and ensnared the club, and tightens with every day and every game that it is not unraveled.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with leaving Borussia Dortmund with a clean sheet and a precious point, even for a team with Barcelona’s standards and scale. Its scoreless draw Tuesday is not a bad result in any context; given this club’s recent memories of road trips in this competition, it could easily be seen as a sign of progress.

Barcelona is, after all, still haunted by what happened at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in the spring of 2018. The specter of Anfield, just a few months ago, remains seared onto its collective mind. Last year, in the traditional eve-of-season speech the club’s captain gives at Camp Nou, Lionel Messi could only promise to make amends for the former; this time, months after the collapse at Liverpool, he admitted it was “hard to say anything” at all.

Emerging unscathed from Signal Iduna Park, from the shadow of the Yellow Wall — Dortmund’s looming, seething South Stand — will, then, offer a shot of reassurance. There are more hostile occasions than an opening game in the group stages, but there are few more intimidating locations. It is a balm, rather than a cure, but still: Tuesday’s draw will help the wounds to heal.

That is not the only mitigating circumstance. There is the fact that Barcelona arrived here with its resources somewhat depleted: Luis Suárez had seen his start to the season interrupted by injury; Messi had missed it entirely. Barcelona came to Germany a team in flux, its two eye-catching summer recruits, Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong, still settling in, its brightest spark thus far Ansu Fati, a largely unheralded 16-year-old from the club’s academy.

It would be unfair, then, to judge its prospects on the evidence of one display, to draw sweeping conclusions from such a small sample size. Barcelona will change as the season marches on. Suárez will find his edge and his eye. Griezmann will adapt to his new surroundings.

Javier Mascherano used to say that it took a year just to get used to the specific way Barcelona plays; De Jong, you suspect, is from the sort of school that might mean he can get away with a condensed course. And Fati, judging by his start, will continue to develop at the same blistering pace at which he has captured much of Spain’s imagination.

But most of all, Messi will return to full fitness. He will be able to play more than the 30 minutes he managed as a substitute in Dortmund. He will weave his magic and wield his influence and he will bend games to his will.

That, ultimately, will be Barcelona’s solution; Messi has the capacity to shine so brightly that nothing else, no flaws and no ugliness, can be seen. Manchester City and Liverpool — despite the latter’s defeat in Naples on Tuesday — might be the standout teams in Europe, but as long as Messi is in its ranks, it is impossible to write off Barcelona. Increasingly, though, there is a sense that that is precisely Barcelona’s problem.

Messi entered the field here — as a great wave of jeers ran down the Yellow Wall — after 59 minutes. That is, doubtless, roughly when Manager Ernesto Valverde planned to introduce him anyway, but that he came on just after Marco Reus, the Dortmund captain, had missed a penalty, just as the host was starting to turn the screw and crank the pressure, is unlikely to have been a coincidence.

At that point, Valverde would admit later, his team had lost control of the game. At that point, he said, “every counterattack was very dangerous.”

Psychologically, for both teams, it felt like an important moment. Dortmund has developed a reputation for being unable to cope with setbacks; it was busy facing up to its disappointment and steaming right through it. Barcelona was teetering, and so it did what it always did: it looked to Messi in its hour of need. That is what Barcelona always does, even at those times when he looks (understandably) a little sluggish, a little off the pace.

They have a word for it: Messidependencia. To admit its existence should not necessarily be read a criticism. It is, to some extent, unavoidable, a consequence of having a player of such supreme talent in the team: a yin and a yang, a natural balance of things. At times last season, Valverde presented it — not entirely unfairly — as a strength as much as a weakness. Of course his team is dependent on Messi. Which team would not be?

The issue is that, at some point, there is going to come a time when Messi — because of injury or fatigue or simply the long, slow march of time — is not able to deliver Barcelona. Or, perhaps more pressingly, when his presence is not going to be enough to mask all of the flaws in the team.

This felt like a glimpse of the latter. Messi’s introduction was supposed to settle his teammates, and unnerve Dortmund. It did not quite work like that. Dortmund swarmed him, as soon as he got the ball, black-and-yellow jerseys surrounding him, dispossessing him, and then tearing up the field, toward the Yellow Wall, hunting for a breakthrough.

The chances kept coming. Time and again, Barcelona’s defense was either pried open or, more often, simply bypassed, Dortmund’s blistering speed too much for Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet to handle.

“They did us a lot of damage,” Valverde said. Only Marc-André ter Stegen, Barcelona’s best player, and his faithful crossbar kept the tide at bay. Messi stood, transfixed, at the other end of the field, watching Dortmund pummel his goalkeeper, unable to help. That is not his fault. There is only so much he can do.

It did not, in the end, matter here. With better finishing, though, it might have. Against a better team than Dortmund, it would have. There will come a point — on another Champions League night, where the pressure is greater and the stakes higher and Barcelona’s memories of what has gone before more vivid — when that could be a problem.


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