Lionel Messi's absence might be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona
After Real Madrid succumbed to a distorting defeat to Levante, the attention shifted to the Camp Nou to decide the league leaders before going into European contest. To the thrill of Lionel Messi fans, they would finally get to see their idol in action after a long international break, during which Messi wasn’t a part of the Argentine national team.
How could Lionel disappoint? He has stepped up every time his team needed him to and this occasion was no different. With his first significant touch, Messi picked up Phillipe Coutinho, who turned the ball into the back of the net, with the clock barely showing two minutes.
Moments later, he ran across the right wing from Luis Suarez’s assist. The moment that he got the ball onto his left foot with a clear sight at goal, there was only one result. A night which started with a bang for the Catalan supporters was just about to turn into a horror.
Two minutes after his goal, Messi landed hard on his right hand, his full body weight onto the arm. He rolled and grimaced in pain. If this was Luis Suarez or Neymar, then people might have thought twice. But since this was Lionel Messi, the signs were ominous. Lionel never exaggerates an injury and this was bound to be a serious one.
Sure enough, Lionel Messi left the pitch, barely moving his arm and all taped up. While Sergio Busquets took the captain’s armband and Barcelona continued on their merry way. While Barcelona hoped for his return to El Clasico a week later, the official announcement from the team ruled the Barcelona talisman out for three weeks, at least.
Although Barcelona has a good medical team which will fix the problem in a short time of three weeks. The injury puts Lionel out of action for a total of six games. The major fixtures that Messi will miss are the El Clasico and the two matches against Inter in the Champions League.
Lionel has been a pillar in the team and the match against Bilbao showed exactly how bad Barcelona can be without Lionel Messi. No tempo, no creativity, no threatening attacks, this was the story of the first half in the Bilbao game. But can this injury actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise?
There are several ways to look at it.
The Pessimistic View
Barcelona depends on Lionel Messi for almost every goal creation. Lionel is involved in over 60% of goals that the Blaugrana score. He has scored five out of the eight goals that Barcelona have scored in the Champions League, this season.
When Barcelona did try to give the Argentine a much-deserved rest, it backfired badly. Against a team like Athletic Bilbao, at the Camp Nou, with 90,000 behind them, Barcelona hardly threatened the Bilbao defence. Lionel Messi’s introduction, however, changed the complete complexion of the game.
Bilbao was immediately on the back-foot and Barcelona’s attacks were much more composed and much more poignant. Since Barcelona depend so much on Lionel Messi, either to score or to make the wonder-pass, the void that he creates is unfillable.
Barcelona’s other players haven’t yet shown up even half his potential. No other player links up, it always has to be Messi. Suarez-Messi, Arthur-Messi, Alba-Messi, Semedo-Messi, every single player can link-up with Messi.
While it is actually great that the players are having a telepathic connection with the best player on the pitch, it exposes that the midfield relies on Messi too much. Suarez and Alba are all right but Rakitic, Arthur and Busquets haven’t yet formed that trident in the midfield which is the heart of the team.
Till now the heart was held together by the ventilator called Lionel Messi, what now? Disaster. The Barcelona midfielders play way too safe and many times decide to pass sideways and backwards rather than risk it forward.
Arthur is just a young kid, he cannot shoulder the pressure alone without proper support. The wings are bland without Messi. Dembele gets dispossessed a bit too much for Barcelona’s liking and Coutinho hasn’t yet shown what he can actually create.
So, for a pessimist’s liking, this is disastrous - the focal point is gone. If a team like Bilbao cannot be broken apart by Barcelona, what about a defence consisting of Varane and Ramos. What about the dangerous visit to Inter with De Vrij standing tall with Skriniar.
The optimistic and much more sensible view
This is FC Barcelona, not FC Lionel Messi. Messi is the best player in Barcelona, no doubts, no arguments. But he has been pressurised way too much by Valverde and the team.
Barcelona supports Messi in the best way possible. Coutinho is ready for his pass, Suarez and Alba are on the lookout for his runs. Whenever Rakitic doesn’t know what to do, Messi arrives within range and he just passes the ball to him. Actually, Messi should be the one supporting Barcelona.
He should have a moderate role, either of being an attacking midfielder or a proper winger. But this Lionel Messi is basically all over the place. If we put up Lionel Messi’s heat map on the Camp Nou pitch, the earth’s core would be exposed. It shouldn’t be that way. Messi scores, Messi assists, Messi makes the through ball, Messi with the dribble. It has to stop, if not today then tomorrow.
What Barcelona has to keep in mind, is that they have a great pool of players. Even without Messi, they have a potent goal-scoring threat in Luis Suarez. They have great wingers. They have talented midfielders, then why can’t they manage on their own?
They absolutely can manage without Leo and they must learn to cope with it. Coutinho, Lenglet, Arthur, Dembele, Malcom, Sergi, Semedo, these players are the future. They have Messi today, but they need to develop so that their tomorrow is secure.
The biggest plus point actually from this injury is the proper exposure of what Barcelona is without Messi. Are they just another Real Madrid or are they the only team to win a sextuple? Only time will tell.
Messi’s injury is a blessing to him as well. Not that a bone fracture is good, but his arm would be ready within 3-4 weeks. What is good for him, is his legs would rest. The legs have never really had a proper rest for a long amount of time and if he had not been injured, then Valverde won’t rest them anytime soon.
Barcelona’s midfield would be tested and perhaps they would learn how to cope without Lionel Messi dropping deep to aid them. When youngsters like Arthur are exposed to the press of Luka Modric, then they would learn what proper football is.
Their link-up would improve. Till now, Semedo has been hitting the wings with Messi, maybe even Sergi Roberto can do well with him. Ousmane Dembele has been good when he is in 5th gear but once he drops his tempo, he gets dispossessed. Well, a team like Barcelona doesn’t like that one bit. They like to maintain the heart-rate throughout rather than a strong pulse now and then.
One very specific person who should consider himself lucky is Malcom. Doesn’t matter what, Valverde never gives Rakitic a rest and he doesn’t put Malcom even on the bench. At least now, Malcom would get his much-deserved shot at the pitch.
So far, he has been reduced to a reserve player by Valverde. To be honest, this lad left Roma for Barcelona due to the brand of football. He isn’t even getting football now. He deserves a start ahead of Dembele, doesn’t matter if it is in the Clasico even.
If Rijkaard hadn’t taken the risk to start a young kid called Lionel Messi against Chelsea, then who knows if he would reach where he is today? It is not like Malcom is alone, he has Suarez alongside, he has Busquets at his back, and he has Jordi Alba on his tail, what more does he need? He isn’t a B team player. He is used to first-team football.
Messi’s injury might just urge the seniors to step up. The second half performance of Luis Suarez was as good as any good striker would put up. If Suarez has that seriousness of being a senior for 45 minutes without Lionel, he should know how to handle 90 as well.
The El Clasico is the perfect fixture for this Barcelona team. Against world class players, although out of form, is where the capability of the young blood will be shown. The players donning Blaugrana should need no extra motivation while stepping up on the pitch for a Clasico. The Camp Nou crowd will take care of the rest.
The last time, Lionel Messi wasn’t starting in a Clasico, the Bernabeu was shaking due to a bald guy called Andres Iniesta. A calm guy like Iniesta felt the need to increase his involvement due to Messi’s absence and he scored a goal. If Luis Suarez gets that motivation, which he should have already, then the already desolate Madrid defence has to watch out.
Finally, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are still fit and on the pitch. As long as Pique is there, no player will sleep especially in the Clasico. The Camp Nou went up roaring Messi’s name last night. The players better make sure that Messi is not disappointed at home. They should play the way they coped without him in 2014. Neymar stepped up during that time when Messi was injured. There is every reason to believe even Dembele and Coutinho will.
About last night, it was a bittersweet victory for Barcelona. But they should make sure that the winning form stays. They have the quality for it. What remains to be seen is do they have the temperament.