Messi expected to return soon, but Mascherano loss leaves Barca weak
They say that the secret to great comedy is great timing, so it was hard not to giggle when just after 1pm on Wednesday FC Barcelona announced the launch of a new App called "Barcelona fitness." Not that Barcelona's fans would have seen the funny side of course. Not while they anxiously awaited news of Lionel Messi's injury. Minor scare or total disaster? Muscle tear or muscle pull? Three weeks? Six? Or just ten days? And nor is it just Leo Messi. Soon after he departed, so did Javier Mascherano, the latest victim of a defensive injury crisis.
A fitness app? Oh, the irony.
Analyzed coldly, Barcelona's 2-2 draw at the Parc de Princes is a good result, even allowing for the way that PSG's equalizer arrived: in the final minute, to add to their first goal, which had been scored by a former player in an offside position. But the result came at a heavy price. Messi dashed in, right to left, and struck a curling shot fractionally over the bar. Immediately, he reached for his hamstring. He had played at altitude in Bolivia for Argentina seven days before and against Celta de Vigo over the weekend. Now he pulled up.
Messi was replaced by Cesc Fabregas -- who, incidentally, provided the wonderful flick that led to the penalty from which Xavi scored Barcelona's second goal -- and at first it appeared to be just a precaution. He looked relaxed enough on the bench. Suddenly, everyone was analyzing his every gesture. One TV channel shot footage of him on the team bus after the game. Here it looks more serious, they said. Barcelona did not confirm the extent of the injury; they did not yet know. They did confirm that Mascherano had torn a ligament and would be out for up to six weeks, virtually ending his season.
There was a time when Messi suffered a lot of injuries, particularly muscular ones. He missed at least 10 league games a season in his first three seasons. But since the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2009, he rarely suffered injuries. Those that he did suffer were never more than a week. In that time, he became the world's best player, winner of four consecutive Ballón d'Ors.
At two o'clock, Barcelona released a formal statement: there was no mention of a tear, just a "muscle injury". He was ruled out of this weekend's game against Mallorca after which, the evolution of the injury would be monitored. There was no mention of subsequent games, providing hope that he might be fit for the second leg against PSG. "I'll be back soon; luckily, it wasn't serious," Messi wrote on his Facebook page.
Barcelona fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Messi's importance barely needs stressing but a glance at the stats provides a glimpse: He has scored 43 goals this season in the league. The next highest is David Villa -- on eight. Add to that eight assists, a figure that only three players in Spain can better: Cesc (10), Iniesta and Ozil (9). Meanwhile, in the Champions League, he is the competition's top scorer on eight (level with Cristiano Ronaldo and Burak Yilmaz) and has three assists. The next highest scorer for Barcelona is Jordi Alba -- with two. His three assists are bettered only by Xavi, on four.
No wonder they were relieved. The prospect of playing without him did not bare thinking about. But amidst the Messi scare, another huge problem had emerged: in isolation, Mascherano's injury might not be a huge problem, but Carles Puyol is also out and so too Adriano. Eric Abidal has now returned to training after his battle with cancer but it is over a year since he played and he may not be ready. On the face of it, there is just one real first-team center back available: Gerard Piqué.
In Paris, Marc Bartra replaced Mascherano but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Barcelona's coaching staff are not entirely convinced by him. He continues a curious trend: for a club that has produced and played so many youth teamers, there has a notable reluctance to use those center backs who are coming through. Andreu Fontas is on loan at Mallorca, Alberto Botía departed and now plays for Sevilla, while Bartra has started just one game in the league all season. And others have been tried, out of position, instead.
In the clásico earlier this season, Adriano played at center back - a right/left fullback/midfielder, it was the first time he had ever lined up in the middle of the defense. Even Mascherano, now an accomplished defender, was a midfielder when he arrived. Sergio Busquets, too, has been employed at center back on occasion -- where he is actually rather good. The problem is that, when it comes to next week's second leg against PSG, to play him there would be to remove arguably Spain's most impressive midfielder this season from his natural position.
That still may be preferable to the other option, though. For then there is Alex Song. Barcelona were priced out of signing Thiago Silva in the summer due not only to his transfer fee but also the 10 million euros a season he earns. Instead, they chose Song. At the time, it appeared a strange choice but the signing was publicly justified by his versatility: he was a two-for-one; a two-for-one who, like Mascherano, could become a reliable center back. Tito Vilanova talked about preparing him to be a defender and he started against Valencia, Granada and Sevilla in September.
It didn't work. Song's signing has, thus far, been a failure. Against Sevilla his performance was so poor that the experiment was soon quietly abandoned. His next start was in La Coruña, in mid-October, where Barcelona won but conceded four. In total, he has started just 10 league games. When he has played, he has left little impact. His latest start was last weekend in Vigo, as a way of protecting Busquets. He played in midfield, the defensive experiment seemingly forgotten.
Now, Barcelona will have to experiment with something else. As if facing Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not hard enough already. Still, at least Messi might be around.