Lionel Messi’s status at Barcelona is nothing short of legendary, but he has not hit the headlines of late. The 32-year-old is clearly approaching the twilight of his time at the Camp Nou so much so that rumours about a potential exit at the end of the campaign have been growing. Messi’s contract runs out in 2021 but a special clause in his contract will allow him to leave on a free at the end of this season.

Rumours have intensified that Messi, who is yet to feature for the club this season due to injuries, will finally decide to call time on his illustrious Barcelona career. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, though, is unconcerned about the situation. According to Sky Sports, he said:

“Messi signed until 2021. It was agreed that at the end of the penultimate season he is at liberty to leave for free. He has earned that freedom to decide his future, but he is very Cule (Barcelona fan) and I am calm.

“Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Carles] Puyol all had the same clause and we couldn’t give Messi a different clause, but I repeat, I am in no doubt he will stay for many years.”

Barcelona stars like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, and Carlos Puyol may have all enjoyed a similar status with their contracts. However, the importance that they had on the team drastically reduced by the time they left.

Iniesta had just one goal and two assists in his final season at the club. Xavi came up with a modest eight assists and two goals before he left Barcelona at the end of the 2014-15 campaign. Both these players had contributed far greater numbers to the club in the previous seasons. The same cannot be said about Messi, who is still the key player in this team.

The absence of the Argentine has been clearly felt in the opening weeks of the campaign. Barcelona have managed just one victory in the first three games. Ernesto Valverde’s men have lost a golden opportunity to profit from Real Madrid’s early slip-ups. The loss against Athletic Bilbao and the draw with Osasuna could have been so much different if Messi was on the pitch. After all, the 32-year-old came up with figures of 51 goals and 22 assists in 50 games last season. These are mind-boggling numbers that once again put Messi on the stage with the best players in the world.

The prospect of replacing Messi cannot be done overnight. It has to be gradually introduced into the club. Bartomeu is aware of this delicate situation and it is not a surprise that the club decided to go after Neymar in the summer – even when pulling off the transfer appeared highly unlikely. Ousmane Dembele may have been signed with a small intention of about ending up as the long-term replacement for Messi, but such a player has not been spotted so far.

Messi has often spoke fondly about his desire to represent Newell’s Old Boys before hanging up his boots. Despite spending most of his time in Spain, the 32-year-old still has roots with Argentina. It remains to be seen if Messi would be open to the option of getting back to Newell’s Old Boys when he has been performing so admirably. The Argentine is also a player who takes very good care of his body and it may not be surprising to see him play at the same level for another few years.