If Barcelona is to defend its crown as La Liga and European champion, it will do so the hard way. Barça may have got back to winning ways Saturday—it recovered from the 4–1 midweek loss at Celta Vigo with a 2–1 win over Las Palmas—but the atmosphere was, according to Santi Gimenez in Spanish outlet AS, “tinged with pessimism and solemnity … more like a hospital waiting-room,” after Lionel Messi went off injured after 10 minutes.
The incident looked innocuous enough: The game was three minutes old when Messi cut inside from the right wing and took a shot that was blocked by defender Pedro Bigas. Messi went down and received treatment, but five minutes later was substituted off and taken for tests that showed a ligament tear in his left knee. The prognosis is that he will miss seven to eight weeks, which would tentatively bring him back in time for the first El Clásico of the season at Real Madrid on Nov. 22.
The more immediate concern for coach Luis Enrique is how Barcelona copes until then. It has already been a tough campaign: Injuries to Dani Alves and Claudio Bravo have put the defense, which has failed to keep a clean sheet yet this season (and conceded four goals in three separate matches) under pressure, the FIFA ban means Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal cannot play until January and the popular and highly rated Rafinha is out for six months with ligament damage.
The last time Messi did not take part in a Barcelona game was 64 matches ago, and his last significant injury was in November 2013; he missed nine games when Barcelona won six, drew two and lost one (at Athletic Bilbao). Back then, coach Tata Martino moved Cesc Fabregas into the false No. 9 position and picked Pedro on the right as cover. This squad, at least for a few more months, lacks that depth. Munir El Haddadi (one goal in 20 appearances) and Sandro Ramirez (four goals in 18 appearances), both 20, are next in line to come in.
Enrique has another option. Against Las Palmas, he started with a midfield three of Mascherano-Busquets-Rakitic for the first time, leaving Andres Iniesta on the bench. The 31-year-old might prove a crucial player in the next few months and will surely be used an option as the third forward player alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez in attack.
Here’s the thing: Despite having those two players in its side, two of the best center forwards in the world today, Barcelona still depends on Messi. Maybe not as much as it used to—the job of Martino, and Enrique since, has been to reduce the Messi-dependencia—but psychologically there is clearly a sense that, “Messi is playing, he can get us out of trouble if we need it” among his teammates. For now, at least, that is no more. That leadership role must fall to Suarez or to Neymar, who only last week said that he was ready to replace Messi as the team’s free-kick taker. “When he stops, I am ready,” Neymar said.
That comes down to the coach to tell his players to ignore headlines like El Mundo’s “Gulp!” and the #animomessi hashtag that is a throwback to Brazil’s emotional collapse when Neymar was injured at the 2014 World Cup. The concept of #animo hashtags started when Eric Abidal faced a life-threatening liver tumor in 2012. It’s hardly the same as two months out with a knee injury.
“I'm always sad when one of my players gets injured, and even more when it's Messi,” Enrique said after the match on Saturday. “But we need to accept the challenge and understand that this is part of football and get through it. We will not change our style of play without Messi, although there are many moments in games in which Messi liberates us and finds solutions for us, so we'll have to strengthen in other areas and the team will have to step up without him.”
Messi’s injury highlights another outstanding facet of his career at Barcelona; that, despite being fouled more than anyone else, he is so rarely injured. Since 2008, he has only played fewer than 50 games for Barcelona in one season—that was in 2013–14, when he managed 46 (and scored 41). When we look back at his goal records, the astonishing range of strikes and the big-game composure too, we should also remember his consistency. The game is faster than ever before, but somehow Messi was always too quick to get injured.
Barcelona’s fixture-list is not hugely fraught with danger. Messi will miss three Champions League games, against Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen (which will be pleased because Messi scored five against it in a 7–1 win in March 2010) and the home-and-away against group minnow BATE Borisov of Belarus. In La Liga, he misses next week’s trip to Sevilla, which has started slowly this season, and games against Rayo Vallecano, Eibar and Getafe before facing surprise table-topper Villarreal. Then comes the Madrid clash.
Jokers have already pointed out that Neymar is doing a good job of replacing Messi. He missed a penalty in the Las Palmas game (Messi has missed six of his last 12), and this week a Brazilian court froze nearly $50 million of his assets for alleged tax evasion. If Barcelona can keep this injury in perspective then there is no reason for it to derail its campaign. The onus is on Enrique to keep the #animo in check. Neymar and Luis Suarez can look after the rest.