David Ramos/Getty Images
Messi watches from a helpless position on the bench as his team are pulled apart by the steel of Bayern Munich.
It’s impossible not to upset some of the purists with this statement, but its truth is unavoidable—Barcelona are just not the same without Lionel Messi.
The player affectionately referred to as the rightful successor to Maradona (a prestigious or dubious honour depending on your stance) in Argentina has been lighting up world and European football for the past seven years.
2012-13 has, by most accounts, been a good season for Barcelona. They wrestled back the La Liga title from fierce rivals Real Madrid—a feat made even more admirable when considering the points chasm that currently stands between them—and made it to their seventh straight Champions League semi-final, also an impressive achievement.
But that is where the fairy tale gets put on hold.
Barca were so spectacularly beaten by Bayern Munich, so pathetically thrashed into submission, that it caused some to claim that the gravy train is grinding to a halt. Of course, anyone with their head screwed on knows that two bad games do not kill off dynasties; Barca will remain at the top of Europe for years to come. But, perhaps for the first time, the over-reliance on Messi was fully exposed.
Having missed the three league games leading up to the clash with Bayern, it seems as though Messi may have been rushed back from a hamstring injury—that has since reoccurred—and wasn’t ready to play; let alone in a game of such magnitude. He was lost among his markers for most of the game, and the few times he did receive the ball, his sloppiness and tendency to gift it back to the opposition were not what we’ve come to expect from the three-time Ballon d'Or winner.
After losing the first leg 4-0 with Messi under-par, Barca made the strange decision to consign him to the bench for the second meeting. Without Messi, Barca were slaughtered 7-0 on aggregate.
Why did they put him on the bench when he was clearly not fit to play? Did they think that he might magically recover during the game? The Barca manager attempted to explain his decision after the game, but the reasons are not convincing.
The decision to include Messi on the bench points to an issue that has threatened to surface for several years. Pedro, Fabregas, Thiago and Villa are very good players, but without Messi to weave his magic, Barca looked decidedly average. Not average in world terms, but definitely when pitted against Europe’s elite. Tito Vilanova knew this and wouldn’t take the risk of leaving their star player out completely.
Messi is a player who rarely gets injured, which is the secret behind Barca’s recent unbridled success. The team is built around him, and even with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta on the team, when their focal point is missing, those joints become unstuck.
The Solution—It's difficult to suggest, but perhaps rejigging the tactics so they are not quite so reliant on Messi may provide some insurance for those rare occasions when he is out of sorts. After all, no one expected it would happen for the most important game of Barca’s season. They should learn from this as they move forward.