When Lionel Messi went down against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semifinal, so too did Barcelona's hope of success in the European competition.
That might sound a little melodramatic, but as we soon saw across the second leg against the French club and then both legs against Bayern Munich, when Messi is not involved and not 100 percent healthy, La Blaugrana simply aren't the world-class team that they appear to be in La Liga.
And whilst that might not seem like an issue given that Messi isn't leaving Camp Nou any time in the near future, it's definitely something worth considering for Barca. How are they over-relying on Messi and how can they best make sure that their go-to player isn't becoming overworked or burdened?
It's not the first time that the question has been raised, and it must be noted here that I'm not trying to suggest Barcelona "lay off" with their Messi-focused attack.
The Argentinian wizard is the best player in the world and is able to create goal-scoring chances out of nothing. If you want proof as to why Barcelona were able to beat Real Madrid by such a strong margin to the La Liga title this year, then look no further than Messi and the individual brilliance that he has shown right throughout the 2012-13 season.
Having said that, however, the injury sustained against Paris Saint-Germain did affect him and did affect the club. He didn't make the starting team on several occasions and was forced to sit on the bench against Bayern Munich in a must-win second leg—proof of just how bad his injury truly is.
And with Messi not 100 percent, Barcelona have struggled.
When he went off for the second half against PSG, Barcelona lost that time period 2-1. They were also trailing the French club 1-0 before Messi came on off the bench to guide them through to the quarterfinals. Barcelona were losing against Athletic Bilbao pre-Messi and they were struggling mightily against Real Betis on the weekend before the star striker emerged.
Without Messi in their starting side, Barcelona have struggled—which, given the talent existent in the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa, is bizarre.
Obviously, if you take the best player out of any team then there are going to be some struggles, but this is different. This is La Blaugrana struggling to find the same creativity, direction and attacking cohesion that they have with Messi in the team. This is the Catalan club in all their attacking brilliance unable to put away the simplest of teams that they would beat 5-0 had Messi been in the lineup.
Barcelona don't have go-to options outside of Messi, and they need it.
Messi took part (goal or assist) in 55% of his team's Liga goals, more than any player in the Spanish league this season. [via opta]— barcastuff (@barcastuff) May 5, 2013
For as good as David Villa, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez might be, they aren't covering the star forward in the slightest. They aren't getting through his work-rate or producing the same achievements, and it's affecting the results coming out of Camp Nou this year.
Zonal Marking noted after the 3-0 loss to Bayern that it was an "embarrassment" for the club, and that the "heavy defeat raises a number of questions about strategy, personnel and overall management." Perhaps the most important of those was their attack, which, even accounting for the might and strength of Bayern, looked like a toothless tiger without any real bite.
Messi is too brilliant to be placed at the top of the attack and not given help. As good as he is—and will be in years to come—teams are showing that they are starting to figure out the Barcelona system. They are slowly showing that the Catalan giants are beatable and that Messi is stoppable.
If Barcelona keep running the same system and the same over-reliance on Messi, that will merely continue. However, if they can find some other options in attack this transfer window (or even simply change their in-squad tactics to bring Villa and Pedro into the game more), then they will go a long way toward ensuring that their strong reign as a world football powerhouse isn't over just yet.
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