What was a meaningless game for FC Barcelona on Wednesday ended up becoming the football story of the night as Lionel Messi was carted off in the 85th minute of Barça’s UEFA Champions League game against Benfica.
Messi had come into the game in the 59th minute, as the Argentine replaced Rafinha. Leo had few chances at goal up to the 85th minute. Gerard Pique sent a lob pass to an onside Messi who had a one-on-one with Benfica goalkeeper Artur. Messi tried to avoid Artur’s sliding grasp for the ball. Leo was able to get away from the goalkeeper’s slide; however, it looked like Leo planted his left foot hard on the ground when avoiding Artur.
Messi continued with his run, turned around and tried to lob up a goal. Once Messi kicked the ball, he fell on the ground in pain, as it looked like his left knee gave out. Artur had recovered and easily grabbed Messi’s shot.
The Camp Nou was silent for a few minutes as Leo lay on the pitch—in pain.
Messi was stretchered off and received a standing ovation from the fans.
After the game, Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta told Spain's Canal+ that Messi’s injury was not serious. “Messi’s injury appears minor, but will have further tests”, said Zubizarreta.
Jose Manuel Pinto, who played in place of Victor Valdes in the Benfica game, also told TV3 (Catalunya) that Messi looked OK. “The doctors are looking at Messi’s knee now”, said Pinto. “I spoke with Messi and he told me he’s fine. He told me to relax.”
Later on his Facebook page, Leo Messi thanked his fans for their well wishes.
“I want to thank to all of you for your messages of support! I copy the Press Release from FC Barcelona Medical Department. ‘Messi has a bruise on the outside of his left knee.’”
Thank goodness Leo is OK.
No footballer is inescapable to injury. Lionel Messi is human after all—although there are moments that it seems like he’s from another planet.
If, in fact, Lionel Messi is out long-term, we will all be disappointed that Messi will not be able to break Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year.
But the effect on FC Barcelona would be a tough pill for Tito Vilanova to swallow. Nevertheless, football goes on, and Barcelona would have to march on without its number one solider.
If the worst case scenario ever happened to Lionel Messi and he was out for a while, what would FC Barcelona have to do to maintain its winning ways?
Let’s look at what a long Lionel Messi absence would mean for Barcelona, and what Tito Vilanova may have to consider doing if Messi out for a while.
If Lionel Messi ever goes down for an extended period of time, the first thing Tito Vilanova has to think about is if he goes with David Villa or Cesc Fabregas at the nine position.
With el guaje at the nine, you get a traditional striker who will change the style of play Barça is accustomed to. Villa would obviously not run around the midfield like Messi does, and Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta and the other mids would have to come up more to find Villa—which would not be a problem.
If Tito goes with a Cesc Fabregas “False Nine” lineup, you’d see a similar style of play as the Spanish national team, where Cesc plays at the nine many times. We saw Cesc have success at that position in Euro 2012. Scoring would naturally go down, as Cesc is no Leo at goal scoring; however, Cesc would be able to set up his wingers just as good as Messi does.
If I had to pick one, I’d go with a Cesc Fabregas “False Nine” lineup. It’s just a safer lineup to go with. A player like Fabregas would not have a problem coming to the midfield a la Messi and set up plays. Villa’s offside tendencies are why I’d keep him out of the CF/ST position. I'd rather Villa have his offsides moments at the LW spot than in the middle of the pitch.
But that’s just my opinion.
Perhaps the player that has to take more responsibility if Messi ever was out long-term is Andres Iniesta.
Arguably the second-best player on FC Barcelona, Andres Iniesta would have to step up his game ever further and lead Barça’s attack in place of Messi. While Iniesta attacks plenty now, he’d have to be much more aggressive and look to shoot first.
Of course, players like David Villa, Pedro, and Xavi would have to step up, but it’s Don Andres that has to carry the team. Barcelona has plenty of talent, but as we all know, if Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta are off their game, Barcelona are in deep trouble.
And if Messi is ever out, Don Andres absolutely cannot be off his game.
If Messi was ever out for a long time, Tito may consider putting Iniesta at the LW spot—perhaps with Cesc Fabregas at the “False Nine”. Iniesta would have Jordi Alba to help him out on the left side of the pitch. As we all saw in Euro 2012, the Alba/Iniesta combination can be extremely successful.
David Villa or Pedro could go to the nine spot with Fabregas at the mid.
If Messi was ever out of action for an extended period of time, look for Andres Iniesta to step up the intensity, passes and shots on goal to try to lead FC Barcelona to victory.
While I mentioned that Andres Iniesta would need to try to carry Barcelona to victory, it would be nice to see the wingers score plenty of goals.
While the Barcelona wingers do get their goals, let’s be honest, Messi’s goals have always carried this club—especially in the past two seasons.
With Messi out, players like Pedro Rodriguez, Cristian Tello, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez would have to create space and score goals.
For future reference, this would apply to Neymar if he were to join Barcelona in the summer.
Many times Messi sets up the wingers for their goals. However, if Leo was out, it’s on the wingers to not wait for whoever plays the nine spot and create a goal-scoring opportunity. Of course, the midfield would help Pedro, Villa and so on. The wingers have proven that they can create space and goals, but there have been too many times where it seems like they are waiting for Messi to start something and create opportunities.
With no Messi, the wingers need not wait and create opportunities on their own...oh yeah, and execute the finish and score.
I’m looking in your direction in particular, Alexis Sanchez.
One last thing: If Lionel Messi was ever out for an extended period of time, Tito Vilanova may have go to a 3-4-3 formation if the offense slows down a bit. A 3-4-3 would see a midfield of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas. David Villa may go to the nine, with Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello on the wings. Perhaps bring Jordi Alba up to mid or even LW, as Alba has played both positions in the past.
Tito could always bring Gerard Deulofeu up from the B squad to play striker, but I think the kid is still not ready to be a full-time first-team player.
The option to bring Iniesta at the LW spot, as well as Cesc at the “False Nine” spot is always there.
If—football gods forbid—Lionel Messi was to go down and out for an extended period of time, Tito Vilanova has plenty of options to try and fill the gap.
One would be to use either Cesc Fabregas or David Villa at the nine spot.
Certainly, Andres Iniesta would have to become the offensive leader in passes—perhaps in goals.
The wingers would have to get more goals.
And finally, a 3-4-3 formation may be needed if the offense struggles.
Barcelona is the best team in the world, and if Messi were out, they have the talent, skill and leadership to be able to continue winning.
But let me be clear: No player, formation or coaching strategy could ever replace Lionel Messi and his presence.
Hopefully, we won’t have to see a Messi-less FC Barcelona for an extended period of time anytime soon.
Let’s stay strong, Culés.
Stay strong, Messi.
Xoel, The Voice of FC Barcelona on the net, period.
Don't forget to check out my other columns: