In the morning there will be pictures of a short, scrawny, kid-faced 25-year-old in Blaugrana strip on all the milk cartons.
Lionel Messi didn’t turn up for Barcelona’s Champions League encounter with Bayern Munich on Tuesday, and without him the soon-to-be-crowned La Liga winners were a shadow of the side that has so dominated Spanish football this season—and club football in general the past five years.
Yes, the statistics will show that Messi—four-time Ballon d’Or winner—was, in fact, on the slippery Munich pitch for 90 minutes in the first leg of a much-anticipated semifinal, but with his movement limited by both a wonky hamstring and meticulous Bayern defense, he, like his team, performed so far below expectations it was hard to believe he, and they, were actually there.
It was no coincidence.
For all the plaudits heaped on Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona’s soul and source of inspiration is still the diminutive Argentine. Without him they are only very good, and Bayern have been obliterating the very good since August. And they were very much without him.
Through the 90 minutes plus stoppages, Messi covered only 7,409 metres of ground. Compare that to the 9,132 he covered in the second leg against AC Milan last month and it becomes obvious something wasn’t quite right with him against Bayern. And with his teammates struggling with their buildup play through the middle, a healthy Messi might have clocked nearly 10,000 metres as he drifted deep to add an outlet.
That he didn’t—that he was so immobile—is why he cut such a forlorn figure on Tuesday. And seeing their talisman so visibly struggling must surely have deflated the rest of the Barcelona squad. By the time Mario Gomez put Bayern 2-0 up shortly after the restart, the Catalans looked well and truly beaten.
Messi, however, denied any fitness issues in his post-match remarks, telling reporters he “felt good" and was “well enough to play.” (UEFA.com)
“[Bayern] were a lot stronger than us—physically superior, in fact,” he added.
Assistant manager Jordi Roura concurred with Messi’s analysis, saying, “We were lacking the freshness to compete.” (UEFA.com)
There has long been a theory that “freshness” or burnout would become an issue for Messi. Since 2008-09, he has never played fewer than 50 club matches in a season—all but a handful of them for the full 90 minutes. Last season he turned out an incredible 60 times for Barcelona, and when international matches are factored in the number becomes 70. It’s simply an unsustainable amount of football.
Against Paris Saint-Germain on April 2, Messi’s body stopped sustaining it, forcing his substitution at the break due to a hamstring strain. He didn’t figure in the Barcelona side that faced Mallorca that weekend, and after a 28-minute, game-changing performance in the return leg against PSG he sat out the Blaugrana’s following pair of matches against Real Zaragoza and Levante.
And yet, despite an only partially-healed hamstring and just 28 minutes of football in April, he not only started against Bayern Munich but played—or, more accurately, survived—until the final whistle.
Even Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge pointed out the obvious following his side’s 4-0 win, saying, “We all saw that Messi wasn’t fully fit. We have a very good chance of reaching the final now.”
They’ve got that chance because, with only one good leg, Barcelona’s best player failed to hit the target and managed just a single, inaccurate shot on the night. He beat his markers on the dribble only twice from six attempts, and as the inside-right area of the attacking third he so often favours was blocked off to him, he was forced to reposition himself.
Or, he would have, had he been able to move properly.
Barcelona will be away to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and it’s almost certain Messi won’t make the trip. And then there will be the decision whether to play him in the second leg against Bayern next Wednesday.
But given that Barcelona are apparently so fearful of going into a match without the best player in the game, it’s likely he’ll both start that match and play until it ends.
And the world, so used to seeing an artist at work, will once again be looking for that short, scrawny maestro who unfortunately went missing.