The Camp Nou faithful—and football fans the world over—had their hearts in their mouths as Lionel Messi was stretchered off the pitch Wednesday night after a clash with Benfica goalkeeper Artur.
Injuries are always unfortunate for any player, but with La Pulga just a goal shy of Gerd Müller’s calendar-year goal record, this blow seems particularly ill-timed for the Argentine attacker.
Most supporters will be looking for Messi—who has, in recent years, seemed to possess an almost superhuman resilience—to make a quick return and book his place in history. And with last night's tests indicating the injury to milder than originally feared, it looks as if Messi may be fit in time for Barca's next La Liga fixture.
But Tito Vilanova should be wary of calls to get him quickly back on the pitch. Messi’s health, and Barcelona’s season, should be the only factors Vilanova considers in deciding his return date.
Certainly it’s a shame for the sport any time a player like Messi has to sit and watch from the sidelines. Nevertheless, Barcelona should see a few silver linings from the injury, as well as a host of reasons he should remain comfortably off the pitch until fully fit to return.
Messi has already had an astonishing year of football—by any reasonable measure, the best year an individual player has enjoyed for decades.
Müller’s goal-scoring mark—85 tallies in a single calendar year—was set in a different time and in a different world as far as football is concerned.
The game is simply much faster, more physical and lower-scoring than it used to be. In the 1972-1973 Bundesliga season, for instance, the average goals per game came in at 3.42, almost 25 percent higher than last season’s La Liga total of 2.76.
Remember when it was considered an accomplishment, a decade ago, for a striker to score a goal in every other game he played?
Messi has scored 21 goals in 14 La Liga games so far this season, a rate three times as prolific. No player has really come close to equaling Muller’s mark in recent times, and in that sense, Messi has already turned the footballing world upside down.
The bar for strikers in football has been getting lower and lower, but Messi has shot it back up with his goal-scoring feats. For that—among other accomplishments, and surely more to come—the football world will always remember him.
Messi may have escaped the calendar year with little injury trouble, but with the number of games he's played, the toll will have been considerable, whether or not it makes itself evident week in and week out.
Not only has Messi played in 74 football matches in 2012, he has been the most closely marked attacker in every single one. As a player, Messi takes a beating in nearly every match he plays, and never shies away from a physical challenge.
To be sure, he has proven himself an extremely hardened, resilient player, and shown that, over long seasons, he can withstand the physical nature of the game despite little rest.
But the matches won't let up any time soon, and with only the one weekend off for the holidays, La Liga doesn't provide much relief.
Whatever the final verdict on Messi's knee, he shouldn't resist a potentially longer break.
Imagine the following scenario: Barcelona go through their season playing great football and mopping the floor with the opposition. Meanwhile, the goal gap between Messi and the rest of the team widens.
Pedro, while continuing to play smartly and energetically, fails to regain his scoring form, while David Villa spends much of the season on the bench in favor of the more creative Iniesta. Then, the week before the Champions League final, Messi goes down with a knock and is forced to miss out on the biggest fixture of the season.
As unlikely as it seems, such a situation is, as the match against Benfica proved, entirely plausible. And if it happens, Barcelona need a plan B.
The fact is, Barcelona have played so few competitive games without Lionel Messi in the past few seasons that whether or not they need to rely on his goals, they have done. And that reliance has only increased this season. What else can explain the fact that David Villa, Barcelona's second-leading scorer, continues to find himself starting most games from the bench?
If the scenario outlined above ever comes to pass, Barca may wish they had a few competitive games under their belt without La Pulga to bail them out in front of goal. Because while the team certainly has the talent to play and win without Messi, it might take some getting used to. This could be their chance.
Pedro has already played a massive role in Barcelona's season and will surely continue to do so, whatever trajectory it takes.
The one element missing from Pedro's game so far has been his once-golden goalscoring touch. In seasons past, Pedro has often been the outlet for Messi's brilliant passes, and the beneficiary of his attracting two or three defenders whenever he is on the ball.
This season, though, Pedro is yet to find the back of the net consistently, scoring only twice in 20 appearances. With Messi always on the pitch and looking for goals himself, Pedro's drought is not entirely surprising—Pedro and his teammates alike are always looking to provide for Messi because he's been so sharp.
But Barcelona are a more complete team when Messi can more reliably turn creator as well as goalscorer, and that means Pedro must find his shooting boots. And necessity, as they say, is often the mother of invention.
With Messi sidelined, Pedro will be on the receiving end of more chances created by his teammates, and will seek out more of his own. If he can find the net a few times with Messi off the pitch, he'll be in a better position to help Barcelona when he returns.
For all intents and purposes, La Liga is over.
Atletico Madrid proved that they can't compete with the big boys in their lackluster performance at the Bernabeu over the weekend. With all the world finally watching, Los Rijoblancos only managed two shots on target, and barely created any clear-cut chances at all. They confirmed what many of us had suspected: that their incredible start to the season included a fair helping luck. With the poor result and dismal performance on their minds, they will continue to drop points in La Liga and fall off the pace.
Los Blancos, meanwhile, remain an outside threat. With a whopping eleven point gap to make up, though, they would have to not only be perfect for the rest of the season, but see the Blaugrana hit a considerable roadblock in form. Barcelona, remember, have only dropped two points thus far all season in the draw with Madrid, and would have to drop eleven more just to be tied with Los Merengues. With or without Messi, that scenario is unlikely.
Ultimately, Messi will be judged not by whether he can equal Muller's tally, but by whether he can lead Barcelona to trophies in the spring and the years ahead. For that task, he will need to be fully fit, rested, and motivated in the New Year.
As I'm sure Leo is well aware, no number of goals in the remainder of December will bring back his penalty against Chelsea from last May. Those are the moments that make or break seasons, all records aside.
No matter how great a footballer Messi is, he will have to sharp and clinical when it matters most in the months ahead.