Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Surviving Without Messi

 By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

As fans of sport, and of our favorite teams in particular, we all have experienced the cataclysmic experience of our team's best players being injured. Something as small as a mosquito bite is enough to induce congestive heart failure if any time is missed, and few players in the world can incite more of this reaction than Lionel Messi.

Despite possessing one of the lower centers of gravity for a player at his position, Messi has maintained a spectacular history of health throughout his career. The Argentine has appeared in 493 competitive matches for Barcelona, while missing only 58 through injury, despite being the recipient of bone crushing slide tackles and Charlie horses that would make your big brother proud.

When Messi collided with Pedro Bigas inside the 18-yard box and immediately went down clutching his knee, you knew it was serious. Amazingly, Leo came back onto the pitch just a few minutes later completing a few short passes before being taken off for good with an obvious limp. The team's worst fears were realized when the medical report revealed a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee.

The initial prognosis has Messi out of action for 7-8 weeks, including huge fixtures in La Liga at Sevilla and home to Villarreal. He will also miss 3 games in the Champions League group stage against Bayer Leverkusen and BATE. Still, those fixtures seem very winnable, despite his absence, for a team as talented as Barcelona.

Even with him in the lineup, Barca have started to show cracks in the infallible armor that resulted in a treble the season before. A midweek visit to Vigo resulted in a 4-1 thumping, which was the first time Barcelona trailed by 3 goals in a La Liga game since May 7th, 2008 vs. Real Madrid. Their next match was at home to newly promoted side Las Palmas, and although they escaped with a 2-1 win, it was not a scoreline we've become accustomed to for Barca against provincial sides.

So the question begs, where will Barca go from here, and can they keep things afloat?

On the surface, it seems Sandro or Munir would be the logical replacement to fill out Luis Enrique’s trident with Suarez and Neymar. Munir was given the first crack as Messi went down on Saturday and had pivotal role in the first and second goals. In between, his play lacked confidence and it showed with mistimed passes and an overall miscommunication with a teammate's run.

Sandro is the more polished and game-ready of the two, but his inexplicable miss from point blank range undermined his efforts. Still, in only 10 minutes of action, he was able to demonstrate his mobility and pace. These attributes are vital to the width that Barcelona’s formation craves in order to be successful.

Andres Iniesta is an interesting case, repeatedly deployed as a winger under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova in an attempt to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the Catalans' midfield. The difference this time around is the lack of a Xavi or Arda Turan to engine the midfield, while also serving as its creative force.

More and more, the injury to Rafinha and the sale of Pedro to Chelsea in the summer have proved to be costly. Because of the transfer ban, and an overall lack of depth, pivotal rest that could have been given to the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez now goes out the window, even against the Rayo Vallecano’s of the world.

Of even more concern to the team's coaching staff and its fans should be the lack of defensive cohesion. Just a little over a month into the season Barca have already allowed a team to score 3 or more goals on their defense three times. Last season, that tally was only allowed twice, and one of those games was a virtually meaningless away leg against Bayern Munich in the UCL semi-final.

If the current time-table holds, Messi will miss a total of 8 games with a return on November 22nd against arch nemesis Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. If the Clasico itself wasn’t enough to make your heart beat just a bit faster, the return of arguably the world's greatest player most certainly will.

In the meantime, the club that credits playing philosophy over individual talent for its success will get the chance to prove to the world, once again, that La Blaugrana are the team to be beat.

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