BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona’s president and manager defended Lionel Messi on Saturday from criticism for his erratic play during the team’s recent collapse, and made sure to stamp out any talk of the club’s all-time leading scorer leaving Camp Nou.
Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said the club would offer to improve Messi’s contract so he "will lead the future" of the team, while coach Gerardo Martino diverted blame for their struggles to his own coaching performance.
In the past two weeks, Barcelona has been eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, and fallen behind in third place in the Spanish league.
Messi has been hammered in the media for his lacklustre showings in each loss, when he appeared to give little effort to help his side for long periods.
"We are being unfair to Leo," Bartomeu told Esport3 television channel. "Our club members need to understand that we must take care of Messi. He has made such an important contribution to this club and he will continue to do so. That’s why we have no doubt that he will lead the future of the club. He is young, he is the best player in the world, and we believe in him."
Bartomeu said the club will offer Messi a "modification" of his contract that ties him to the Catalan club until 2018.
"We want to improve it because he deserves it and to adapt it to football’s current circumstance," Bartomeu said.
He added he and his board would complete the remaining two years of their mandate.
However, the squad looks set to undergo an overhaul, if Barcelona can find a way to get FIFA to remove its one-year ban on signing new players it handed out for violations in its signing of youth players.
Bartomeu said sports director Andoni Zubizarreta would lead a project to carry out a "profound remodeling" of the team.
At a news conference following team training, Martino dismissed speculation that Messi’s mini-dip in form might lead to his departure at the end of the season.
"That people are talking about Messi’s future surprises us, I don’t take those comments seriously," Martino said.
— The Associated Press