Midway through the first half of Barcelona’s game against Sevilla earlier this month, Neymar hit a glorious free-kick that cannoned off a post and hit the goalkeeper’s back before rolling slowly all the way along the goal-line. The ball was scrambled away as Luis Suarez tried to turn it in.
It summed up the Catalans’ afternoon. Several times Suarez uncharacteristically fluffed his lines; they hit the woodwork three times. But Sevilla grew into the game and emerged 2-1 winners, inflicting Barca’s second La Liga defeat of the still-young season.
So is there a crisis at the Camp Nou? Much too early to say that, but there is certainly an injury crisis. And one of those out is the talismanic Lionel Messi, who is out until late November with a knee injury.
One exiled Barcelona fan watching the game in Cordoba raised his eyes to the heavens as another chance against Sevilla went begging and said, “The trouble is, when we have no Messi other teams can play normal football.”
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Or as Spanish sports journal Marca put it: “No Messi, no dominance.”
There was evidence of that both against Bayer Leverkusen in the recent Champions’ League game and against Sevilla.
Barca’s opponents could be more expansive, worry less about the usual front three of Neymar, Suarez and Messi. Leverkusen certainly took the game to Barca in the Nou Camp, and led for much of the match.
Sevilla had won just once in their opening six games, but pressed forward with growing confidence as the game went on. Who would dare commit men forward while the deadly trio of Barcelona’s forward line lurk around the half-way line?
Barca’s next La Liga game is on October 17th against Rayo Vallecano, whose Luis Farina recently said on the club’s website: “It’s true Messi makes a big difference and if he’s not there it will help us a little bit.”
Messi, who made his La Liga debut on October 16 2004 in the Catalan derby against Espanyol, brings extraordinary versatility to coach Luis Enrique’s squad.
Beyond his goal-scoring prowess, he can drift in from the right and drop deep. He can drive at defences, play and receive passes in tiny spaces around the edge of the penalty area. He also has a unique ability to change the angle of attack, with long-range passes that make his next move impossible to predict.
At the recent Aspire4Sports congress in Berlin, former Barcelona and Holland icon Johan Cruyff contrasted Messi to Ronaldo.
Of the Portuguese around whom other stars revolve at Real Madrid, Cruyff said: “He’s a goalscorer. He’ll never be that creative player around whom you build a team … But Messi is much more of a team player; he passes the ball, produces so many assists.”
When he’s absent, supporting actors suddenly have to become the main attraction, and that’s not an easy transition – even for world-class players like Suarez and Neymar.
And Messi has rarely been absent, starting 56 games in all competitions last season, before taking part in the Copa America and then a pre-season tour with Barcelona in the United States. Too much football?
It’s not only Messi that’s out. Andres Iniesta, who pulls many of the strings in midfield, was absent in Seville after picking up a hamstring injury in midweek. The versatile Rafinha is out for the season. And many Barca fans think Xavi’s maturity and calming influence is sorely missed. He left at the end of last season to ply his trade in Qatar.
As Cruyff – who was Barcelona coach for eight years - puts it, “For me the most important thing is always the team, and for that Xavi was one of the best Barca players, because he was always at the heart of the team, he controlled the pace, the passes, when he needed to drop back.”
Even with Messi in the line-up, Barca’s defence has looked surprisingly fragile at times this season. In the European Super Cup, they conceded four (against Sevilla); another four against Celta Vigo in La Liga and four against Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
They’ve conceded nine goals in seven league games, compared to 21 in all of last season.
At one time or another Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique have all been missing through injury and suspension. Thomas Vermaelen is still out with a calf injury sustained in mid-September.
That may explain part of the problem, but against Sevilla and Leverkusen Barcelona also looked vulnerable at set pieces, and against Celta vulnerable to the quick counter-attack.
The international break should have helped with recuperation but a hectic schedule now follows with six games in three weeks. That’s where the strength of a squad tells. And Barca’s is looking a little threadbare.
Besides those injured, the Catalan team lost Pedro, a selfless understudy and perennial substitute for the front three, to Chelsea in August. The players brought in over the summer – Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal – can’t play until January because the one-year transfer ban imposed by FIFA for contravening rules on registering players under the age of 18.
Last season, especially once Suarez had served his ban for biting, Enrique’s starting XI was quite consistent. Messi played in all 38 La Liga matches. There were changes, of course, but the pattern was largely undisturbed, especially during the second half of the season, when Barca went into overdrive.
For that very reason, it would be hard to argue that Barcelona are in crisis before the first leaves of autumn fall given the top of La Liga is uncommonly tight. Barcelona are fourth, level on points with Real Madrid, with both teams just a point behind leaders Villarreal.
The next edition of “El Clasico,” as the match between the two rivals is known, takes place on November 22nd and could have a major bearing on the rest of the season.
That’s the match when Barca hope Messi will be back.