Can Lionel Messi really do it all on his own?
I played Football Manager to see if Messi could keep Cardiff City in the Premier League - this is what happened.
Just over a month ago I made Neil Warnock's dreams come true: I placed him in charge of Barcelona. I won't spoil the rest of that story for you, the tale of one man raging against the dying light of his own turgid football, but now it is Lionel Messi's turn. Now it is time to make all Messi's worst nightmares come to fruition. His perfect sliding through balls running beyond to Kenneth Zohore and Oumar Niasse.
He thought Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo weren't up to his ball-playing standards during Argentina games. Try Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba.
As I don't want to simulate an entire Cardiff City pre-season, which I can only imagine, under Neil Warnock, consists exclusively of running up hills in the Austrian countryside with old Rover 200s tied around your waist - as in, he probably doesn't even bring a single football on their pre-season tour - I start the game immediately before Cardiff's first match. Away at Man City.
It's a baptism of fire for Leo in his new surroundings, with his new teammates. To make matters worse, star striker Kenneth Zohore, and I use the word 'star' there extremely, extremely loosely, is under a transfer bid from Lyon.
They get trounced 4-1. Both Bamba and goalkeeper Alex Smithies play a 5.7, the Football Manager equivalent of a fairly decent Shkrodan Mustafi performance. Messi is substituted off for, er, Jacob Murphy. Only the lesser of the two Murphy twins!
Despite this, Bluebirds supporters are generally positive about the Argentine's debut. As you'd imagine. They haven't seen a left foot like it since Peter Whittingham. If Messi is even half as good as the player Stewart Downing wishes he could have been, then he will leave south-east Wales a certified legend.
Everyone was happy, then, apart from, presumably, Messi himself.
Oh, and a man called 'Wes Durkin' who thought 'Messi was alright' and kindly reminded everyone that 'people need to calm down'. Can just picture him, can't you? Wes Durkin, with his Facebook profile picture of a car, or his dog, or his own child. Wes Durkin, the man for whom nothing is ever good enough.
Although I did enjoy this passive-aggressive slamming of the entire Cardiff City squad by Stefon.
Zohore moves to Lyon for the rather princely sum of £9.25m, leaving Cardiff with the options of Oumar Niasse, Bobby Reid at a push and.... Oumar Niasse as true out-and-out strikers.
Fortunately, they have Lionel Messi, and Lionel Messi could forge a half-decent attacking trident with a small pile of bricks and a pine cone covered in some Nutella. Instead, Warnock starts the next game with Bobby Reid up top and Junior Hoilett, the player you will no doubt remember from a stunning four-game spell for Blackburn Rovers in something like 2011, interchanging in perfect harmony with Lionel Messi on the flanks like two glorious, copulating butterflies.
Even though Reid and Hoilett are, in a vacuum, only marginally better than the pile of bricks and Nutella pine cone, Messi does his thing and picks up his very first Premier League Man of the Match award to go along with the W at home to Everton and an assist - teeing up who else but his stocky Canadian dollar store equivalent.
And, because this is a Neil Warnock Cardiff City side, he is also booked in the seventh minute. Talk about adapting to a new environment.
As sure as night follows day, one magisterial Messi (thanks, Ray Hudson, thanks a lot) performance comes immediately after another in a 2-1 home win over Bournemouth. He creates four clear cut chances (three of which are spurned by Oumar Niasse) whilst laying on yet another easy finish for Hoilett. Crucially, though, he gets on the scoresheet himself with a low 18-yard drive into the corner. You know. On his left foot into the bottom right. Just outside the box. The exact goal Messi has scored about 4 million times.
Given that the two wins on the bounce lift Cardiff to the lofty heights of third, albeit after just three games, and that an away encounter with Manchester United (who are good on Football Manager, remember. They are actually good on the game) is coming next, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Warnock would rest Messi for the intermittent Carabao Cup Second Round tie against Sheffield Wednesday.
Messi plays all 90 minutes to secure an absolutely pointless 1-0 win thanks to a goal from Rhys Healey. Absolutely no idea lads. You'll have to Google him. I can't be arsed.
Consequently, United brush aside Cardiff. Bamba and Smithies, once again, have shockers.
The game is important, though, because Lionel Messi discovers how he can play with Oumar Niasse. The key is this: feed him tap-ins. Literally make it impossible for him to miss. Square the ball to him as close to the goal line as possible. Messi does exactly this in the 67th minute, Niasse provides the typically unconfident finish and the comeback is on. Until Warnock immediately subs Messi off for Josh Murphy because Messi is gassed because he played him for an entire game against Sheffield Wednesday in the Carabao. Now that's what I call management.
Away at Palace in their next fixture, Messi turns it up to 11. Not only does he lift the entire Palace starting lineup to ratings above a 7 (bar Sol Bamba, who, despite being their best player in the actual Premier League last season is playing like his powers have been absorbed by a tiny alien like a weird Cardiff City remake of Space Jam) he also created seven chances, scored a brace (including the very best kind of free-kick - the thumping free-kick) and laid on yet another tap-in for whoever was pretending to be a Premier League calibre striker out of Reid or Niasse. This time it was Reid. This time I think it was Reid.
A dramatic loss at home to Watford, the team with the worst badge in the division, follows, as Troy Deeney and Isaac Success tip the game on its head in the last five minutes. Messi disappoints for the first time and Sean Morrison has a stern, uncompromising word with him in the dressing room afterwards.
Those words are: "Please keep us up. Please. I'm begging you. Please. My son will love me that bit less if we're relegated."
Shortly after the game I see an in-game news story pop up with the headline 'Cardiff City lose key man'. I immediately fear the worst. That this simulated season, this experiment that will no doubt define Lionel Messi's legacy, could be in tatters already. Oh... Oh. Greg Cunningham is injured. Greg Cunningham, their backup left-back, is out for a short indefinite period with a calf strain. For fuck sake.
Moving swiftly on, Cardiff lose again, this time time to ten-man Spurs after Toby Alderweireld, the man with the perfectly waxed side-part and quiff of a subpar Bond henchman, sees red.
Somewhat controversially, Warnock chooses to play Lionel Messi in central midfield. Instead of Sergio Busquets, he has Victor Camarasa behind him. Instead of Andres Iniesta he has Leandro Bacuna. Ahead of him, instead of himself, he has Oumar Niasse. Yeah... Yeah. Less than ideal.
A 2-0 defeat away at fellow relegation candidates Huddersfield Town means three defeats on the trot for Warnock and more uninspiring results soon follow.
They draw 1-1 against Fulham and 2-2 against West Ham, despite the freakish Niasse-Messi partnership combining twice to put the Bluebirds ahead in the game. Clearly disgruntled, the Cardiff City supporters start a poll to ask fans if Lee Peltier should be in the starting XI. 89%, an overwhelming majority, vote Yes.
During the international break, Messi scores a hat-trick for Argentina against Ecuador in a 5-1 rollicking, earning a perfect 10.0 rating. It's funny how international duty with Argentina, once a burden, is now his release. He has finally learned to appreciate the likes of Angel Di Maria now he has to rely on Aron Gunnarson's long throw-ins to feed him.
The first game back, Messi continues his international form and wins yet another MOTM award, even if it does come in a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea. The scintillating run continues though and Newcastle are swept aside 3-1 at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The boys are at it again; Messi and Niasse, like Batman and Robin, like Yin and Yang.
The match report reveals that Messi scored yet another free-kick before chipping Martin Dubravka in the 88th minute to seal the win. Niasse scored a minute later, probably bitter that Messi was getting all the credit.
In one of the news stories following the game it mentions that 'speculation is growing as to the club's financial state' and that there is 'every possibility that the forward may be the first to leave'. Basically, what that means is Messi's £1.2m weekly salary is absolutely crippling the club. Whether he manages to keep them up or not, Cardiff City will be sinking eventually. And Lionel Messi is the anchor.
Remarkably, Messi is then benched for the next game as an actual, realistic Cardiff front three of Niasse, Reid and Hoilett get an outing away at Wolves. They lose 1-0.
As you'd expect, some questions are asked of Warnock's decision to bench the best player in the history of the game in favour of a Championship player, a Championship player and Oumar Niasse, who, all things considered, is probably at a League One level anyway.
Given that, again, he benched the best player in the history of the game for what would be only a slightly above average Hull City front line, you'd expect the criticism to be a bit sterner. But hey. I guess that's how highly Neil is rated by the Welsh supporters.
It takes Messi less than a minute to score after returning to the lineup, banging one in within the first forty seconds during a home match against Leicester City.
The bad news for the GOAT, however, is that virtual Jamie Vardy, just like virtual Manchester United, is living a few years in the past and is still a chat-shit-get-banged goalscoring monster in the game and he quickly reverses the scoreline, scoring twice before the 22nd minute.
You'll no doubt notice Lee Peltier, who 89% of fans believed should be in the starting lineup, shoehorned in at centre half for this particular collapse. Obviously he didn't play very well. What do the fans know?
I like to imagine that, after the game, a rather nervous Messi sheepishly went over to Leicester's number nine to ask for his shirt.
"Sorry pal, no can do, promised it to 'Arry Arter. Can meet you in the club bar for a blue WKD in a bit though, if you'd like? Awrite, sound mate. What's your name again? Liam? Lenny? Lenny. Nice to meet you, Lenny. Welcome to the Barclays."
And as Messi turns round, Vardy gives him the 'wanker' sign and has right old chuckle about it with James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
The first Premier League axe of the season falls as Everton, languishing at the bottom of the table, strap Marco Silva into the guillotine and say 'au revoir'. A similar fate befalls Ralph Hasenhüttl soon after, the Southampton board finally losing patience with a man who can only be described as 'Austrian'. Seriously, does anyone know anything else about Ralph Hasenhüttl? Anyone? Name a former club he has managed other than RB Leipzig. Name a team he played for during his career. You can't. I am convinced Ralph Hasenhüttl just sort of appeared one day, like the threat of global warming. Or Nando's. Anyway. This is bad news for Warnock and Cardiff City, who are only four points ahead of the two clubs occupying relegation places who are, surely, going to spring back into life once they appoint a new manager.
That other iconic Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, is soon appointed as the new Saints coach - that's them safe, then - and in response Cardiff take a deep breath, puff out their chest, and say "Yeah, that's probably us going down, too".
Lionel Messi is the only player who gets a decent rating for the visit of Manchester City as Cardiff fail to muster a single shot on target.
Mircea Lucescu, a Dinamo Bucharest legend (I'm told), is appointed Everton manager. It is to this news, however, that Cardiff finally respond, turning in a wonderful team performance to see off Sean Dyche's pesky Burnley side, in part thanks to a rare poor performance from a man usually as consistent as brown sauce on bacon on sourdough white, Tom Heaton.
The goals come from all the big name, big game players: Aron Einar Gunnarsson (first minute), Lionel Messi (fourth minute) and, yep, Oumar Niasse (82nd minute shinner from three yards out).
Please do, as well, note the fact that key player Greg Cunningham is now back in the side, fully fit, and turning in an absolutely shite performance. Still reeling from the fact they toyed with me that 'Cardiff lose key man' clickbait I move on with the game and watch Arsenal beat Cardiff 2-1.
Aaaaand right on cue...
Well that was inevitable. Good thing Cardiff have the January transfer window and a budget of approximately minus £20 million to replace him, due to his exorbitant wages.
There is no funnier way I can emphasise this development in the game than simply repeating the FM news story: "Lionel Messi is out with a pulled hamstring... As things stand, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Kadeem Harris, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Callum Paterson would be the contenders to replace him."
That, right there, is like having your choice of all the slightly worse tier of Celebrations chocolates (Bounty, Snickers, Galaxy Caramel, Mars) to replace a 22 oz porterhouse steak for dinner.
The good news is that Messi is only out for three weeks and Cardiff are, as it stands, still three points outside the relegation zone.
The bad news is they have two tricky away ties against Bournemouth and Everton, and then a home game against United to play with the small pile of bricks and Nutella pine cone up top.
The other good news is that Darren Roberts, who evidently doesn't know who Lionel Messi is or who Cardiff City are, thinks they will be fine. So no need to worry.
With his back pressed firmly against the wall, Warnock manages to shithouse his way to a fortunate 1-1 draw at Goodison Park before losing 1-0 to Bournemouth. All things considered, a point isn't bad without their star player.
What is bad, though, is the manager's decision to sell Junior Hoilett, basically their only other forward that has performed out wide, to CSKA Moscow for £5 million.
Even worse is Terry Bamford's spelling of Moscow. Unless he is Dutch. Which he definitely isn't.
Kadeem Harris is also sold to Middlesbrough for £700k, leaving the Cardiff squad incredibly light on natural wide players.
Without Messi, and indeed, thicc Canadian Messi, Hoilett, Cardiff are no match for Manchester United and lose 2-0 at Old Trafford.
Messi is barely fit in time for their next game, a fourth round FA Cup tie away at Preston North End, but Warnock plays both the Argentine and a full strength team, regardless.
Messi does proverbial bits and leads his side past the Lilywhites. But at what cost?
A relegation six-pointer is next against Bielsa's Southampton, and just to add an extra bit of spice to a fixture that is already as hot as a lamb madras, both managers hit their respective press conferences with gusto.
But whose walk would match their bold fighting talk? Well, Bielsa's actually. Despite an 'acrobatic finish' from Messi, Cardiff lose 3-1 and sink to 18th in the league table.
With the next game looming and his team desperately needing three points, Warnock is asked whether he might try and play a more adventurous game at home to Palace.
His answer is perfect: about as abruptly as you can say "of fucking course not don't be ridiculous" without actually saying that.
Regardless, he makes the rather sensible decision to reunite his two best attacking options: Messi and Niasse. The boys are back (in town).
A goal from each, the Raul and Ronaldo, the Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton of their generation, is enough to earn a vital point despite playing much of the game with ten men.
Even so, the dynamic duo fail to find the back of the net in the next two fixtures (a 3-0 away defeat to Watford and a respectable 0-0 draw with Spurs).
Warnock, clearly feeling the strain of yet another relegation battle, decides to criticise Pochettino for the lack of long-ball in their game.
A 1-0 win at home to Huddersfield, thanks to Messi goal and a miracle of a performance from Neil Etheridge (an 8.8 rating, ridiculous save after ridiculous) gives the grizzled 70-year-old manager some respite.
It doesn't last for long as Cardiff quickly lose three games on the bounce, including a heartbreaking defeat against Brighton. In the uninteresting birds derby Messi puts the Blue variant up by two goals inside six minutes (he is ridiculous) before the Sea variant come back to win 3-2, partly because the rest of Messi's teammates got a bit cocky, partly because they are Cardiff City level players.
As is now customary, Messi fucks off on international duty happy as Larry at the prospect of getting to pass the ball to Giovani Lo Celso rather than Joe Ralls, and promptly stuffs four past a hapless Iran side, just because he can.
He comes back, lays one on a plate for Bobby Reid, and Cardiff earn a draw with Chelsea despite only managing a single shot on goal. And then they lose to Newcastle.
Cardiff are now bottom of the table with five games to play and Lionel Messi is staring down the barrel of Championship football next season. Lionel Messi is staring down the barrel of being man-marked by the likes of Ryan Shotton and Jake Cooper and Luke Ayling next season.
Perhaps given what's at stake, and perhaps because he is simply not used to a Neil Warnock team talk, the kind of aggressive, Yorkshire poetry that can inject a man with the rare primal energy of a thousand horny bison, Messi gets sent off in their next match against Wolves. For a professional foul. Lionel Messi was stopping a counterattack as last man. Only in a Neil Warnock side.
It means he is given a one-match ban and without him, they succumb to a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City, thanks to a brace from *checks notes* Wilfred Ndidi.
It is at this juncture that I would just like to give you all some context in the form of Cardiff's relegation rivals, Burnley, who you will find above occupying 18th place.
They have a game in hand. Why do they have a game in hand? Well, dear reader. They have a game in hand because they are in the Europa League semi-finals thanks to a win over Real Madrid on penalties in the quarters. Obviously that's why. How did you not get that? Are you an idiot? Do you simply not believe in the magic of Sean Dyche, the man with a voice that sounds like footsteps on a gravel driveway, the ginger Galactico-toppler?
Back to Cardiff. Messi returns, wins Man of the Match, his 11th of the season, and Cardiff still lose. 2-1 to Liverpool. There are two games to play and Cardiff must win both, and hope Everton take only a point from their final two, to stay up.
Their next game is against Arsenal, who are gunning for the title. Who will get their grubby, desperate mitts on it if they earn three points.
As survivals chances go, they are effectively a dodo.
Before the game, Warnock is defiant. He's confident of beating Emery. He knows he is going to beat Emery. In a way, I am too. I have the funny feeling that the whole season has been building up to this; one last Lionel Messi tango, a devastating, singlehanded destruction of Arsenal to send the entirety of their back-four, goalkeeper and two holding midfielders into counselling.
What I wasn't expecting was this exact performance to come from Bobby Reid. You know, instead of Messi. Who didn't even get an assist.
Warnock, as you'd expect, was a right dickhead about denying Arsenal the title afterwards and do you know something? I just love to see it.
The season was set for a grandstand finish, a final day winner takes all war between Warnock's Cardiff and Dyche's Europa League semi-finalists Burnley for the right to stay in the Premier League.
Alas, Everton won their next game 1-0 and instantly relegated both teams, along with Huddersfield. Shame. A real shame.
Even with nothing to play for, the two teams but on a hell of a show for fans and pundits alike, playing out an exquisite 1-1 draw with the two brightest stars in the galaxy of big names, Chris Wood and Lionel Messi, both getting on the scoresheet.
Messi earns his 12th MOTM award of the season despite Cardiff only winning seven games.
Dyche is sacked. His Burnley team were defeated 6-1 on aggregate just days prior in the Europa League semifinals against AC Milan. Arsenal win the league on the final day, two points ahead of City, and Cardiff finish three points from safety, behind Marcelo Bielsa's Southampton.
Messi's stats for the season: 15 goals and 5 assists in 34 games, and an average match rating of 7.68 - the third highest mark in the league, behind only Hazard and Kane.
At the Cardiff City awards, Messi picks up Fans' Player of the Season and the Signing of the Season awards. He loses out on best goal to Oumar Niasse. Sol Bamba is shipped out to FC Dallas in the MLS almost the instant the summer window opens. Thanks to Messi, Cardiff finish with the worst 'Wages to Turnover' ratio in the Premier League.
So what have we learned?
Can he do it on his own? Could Lionel Messi have kept Cardiff City in the Premier League?
Well... no. If anything, he cost them seven points. They were seven points worse than real life. And obviously that's quite an unsatisfactory conclusion. But let me pose this. Given that both he, and Argentina, are struggling in this season's Copa America, and everyone is wondering why, I think I might have a solution. In the season before every major international tournament, Barcelona need to make sure they have the league wrapped up by January and send Messi out on loan to a long-ball, Brexit football club.
Once there he will toil fruitlessly in a rigid 4-5-1, barely getting the ball but playing out of his skin week-in and week-out for no obvious reward. He will set up Niasse over and over again and watch him miss. He will point to a minuscule space between the lines in the hope that Callum Paterson can thread the needle, and watch him fluff it into the path of the opposition. He will ask for the ball on his chest from a throw-in and watch Aron Gunnarson lob it 20 metres in the air, up and over his head.
Do this to him, do this to the great Lionel Messi, and watch him when he gets off the plane and sees the Argentina squad. Watch him smile and love football again. Watch joy radiate out of him like the exposed Chernobyl reactor.
Do this to him, and watch him play with such zest and energy he ends the next World Cup with 18 goals and the Jules Rimet. This is the key to cracking open the Lionel Messi international duty conundrum, of that I am convinced.