As the February 8th game approaches between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou, FCB will be without their star Lionel Messi. The Argentinean forward left the pitch in tears during the final minutes of his team’s 1-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday after suffering a hamstring injury. Many wondered if Barcelona had made the right choice playing him despite whatever pain he might have felt for this match; an intense one against another Spanish heavyweight which could determine who lives up to their early-season form through May; it also presents an opportunity to halt Atletico Madrid’s 22-game unbeaten streak (now 21 consecutive games), something no other team has done this season in all competitions.
As disappointing as Messi’s injury was for those eager to watch one of the world’s great players compete again after a long layoff due to a similar problem, it should not come as a shock. The Argentinean has been very fragile throughout his career and even manager Tito Vilanova recently mentioned how he felt other teams were targeting Messi by going after him with rough challenges. It would be naive to say that was not at play here as well considering he had been kicked often during this match.
“I am leaving the cup final here, I am going on holiday and that is it,” Messi said afterwards through an interpreter. “It was a knock to my right leg again and when I tried to get rid of someone I stretched out my hamstring.”
In fact, Vilanova even admitted after the match that he could have substituted Messi at any time during the game. Few in Catalonia would argue against him doing so; even defenders Carles Puyol & Gerard Pique were seen pleading with Messi to come off several times (he did not speak to reporters afterward). With Barcelona already missing David Villa due to another hamstring problem all season long, they will now likely turn their full attention towards getting their other two prolific forwards healthy for the February 23rd cup showdown: Brazil’s Neymar and the Chilean Alexis Sanchez.
According to press reports out of Barcelona, doctors say Messi will be out for 2-3 weeks; any team in Europe would miss him dearly but since he also has a knee problem, it could impact whether or not they allow him to play on that again as well (he had surgery on it last year & missed several months).
“Messi is such an important player for Barca that this injury probably won’t help the club win La Liga,” said Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti of his eternal rival’s worst nightmare. “It is more of a personal than a professional blow.”
As mentioned above, Barcelona will now turn their attention towards getting Neymar & Sanchez to 100% as their next matches will be against Atletico Madrid (El Derbi) and then away at AC Milan in the Champions League. Those two games are now likely much more important than just this season’s El Clasico versus Real Madrid, which takes place on March 2nd (a game where they may not have their world-class trident available if all three still cannot go).
“Messi is a big loss for Barcelona, but I still think they have the best squad in Europe,” said Ancelotti. “It’s bad news for Barca but good news for us ahead of our game with them at the end of February.”
As expected, Xavi was extremely upset about losing his friend and teammate. “We’re going to miss Messi a lot now,” he told reporters after the match. “On top of what we already lost with Villa, now we have another important player injured.”
This injury is especially significant as it occurs exactly one year after Messi made his triumphant return from a similar problem (though not as severe). On March 26th, 2012 against Paris Saint-Germain, he scored two goals and assisted on another before limping off in tears at halftime with an adductor muscle strain. Barcelona would go on to win that game 4-2 and eventually advance to the Champions League semifinals where they beat Chelsea 3-2 on aggregate (including a memorable 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge) before falling 5-3 on aggregate to eventual champion Bayern Munich.
“I knew that second goal was going to be costly,” said Vilanova, who watched his world-class striker limp towards the locker room after scoring a 70th minute penalty kick. “The same thing happened last year and we saw what followed.”