Injuries are one thing. An injured Lionel Messi is quite another thing. Use all the biometric feedback systems you want, randomness is always there to throw your preparation and plans out the window. The club officially communicated that a tear in a knee ligament will keep Messi out of action for around two months. The team is still loaded with wordclass talent but Messi is otherworldly and his absence significantly impacts schemes and strategy. Nevertheless, Barça should manage without Messi well enough during his time away.
First things first – the schedule. Usually such pesky, unwelcome events the international breaks in early October and mid November now work in favour of Messi’s recovery. The latter especially so. Barça host Villarreal on November 8th before returning to club action on the 22nd against, as fate would have it, Real Madrid. It isn’t the fixture you’d want to reintroduce a player to competitive action after a long lay off, but we’re talking about Lionel Messi and he’s an alien. His recovery will obviously dictate the level of melodrama leading up to this match, so hopefully at this point the news is Messi is fit and ready rather than good enough. If the injury hasn’t healed in an ideal fashion, Luis Enrique will have a big decision to make about risking further damage. Of course, all the variables are not yet known. Where in the table will Barça be? Where will the Madrid sides be? Fingers crossed, who else is unavailable? But not knowing the answer to these questions, let’s return to the calendar.
The priority during these next two months is Europe. Over this period, Barça will play three Champions League matches – home to Bayer Leverkusen this coming mid-week and both legs against BATE. If Barça can’t pick up at least seven points from these matches, Messi or not, they have no business making a title defense. While the squad began as thin and looks slightly anorexic now, there is enough to manage these games professionally and plan on winning. In reality, only the Messi injury is of genuine consequence. Most out now are defenders, where the team is covered, and in my opinion the loss of Rafinha doesn’t translate to changing a result one way or the other.
The other matches during this time are Sevilla and Getafe away as well as Rayo Vallecano and Eibar at home. Right now, those teams rank 20th, 17th, 10th and 9th in the table with a collective total of 5 wins from 20 matches. Getting Sevilla out the way first is an advantage too. Unai Emery will eventually get things right but he only has a week to do so before the Barça game. They also have a far tougher fixture sandwiched between then and now than Barça – Juventus in Turin. The other matches are winnable, Messi or not. Villarreal at home isn’t to be scoffed at yet an advantage exists in the Yellow Submarine being a team that will try and impose their game rather than stifle Barça. Okay, it didn’t work against Celta, but teams that attack leave space conducive to scoring. Getafe away will be a physical, boring affair but the kind of game Barça still have enough quality superiority to only aim to win. Perhaps some of those set pieces from last year are due señor Unzue.
In the absence of an idol, it falls to the pupil to carry the weight. It is up to Neymar to take on aspects of what Messi does. The Brazilian will need to do take on the work of penetrating through the lines and cutting centrally to increase his influence. Have faith in Ney, he isn’t one to shirk in the light of responsibility. Of equal importance will be a stop to all this goal leakage. If we can assume a drop in offensive productivity with Messi out, a logical counterbalance is an increase in defensive strength.
The spotlight also now shines brighter on Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez. So far it’s been tepid. The willingness is there, but a great deal more composure and productivity is necessary. Maybe knowing they need not score in every ten minute cameo will ease their mind to a degree on and off the pitch. They’ve never have a better shot to show the boss what they can do. However, I predict Andrés Iniesta getting some game time in a forward role he has experience in (against Bayer firstly). It’s one of the Cruyffism’s I largely believe in – play your best players. Against Las Palmas, Busquets had a very impressive game in the non-pivot midfield position, which is something he should then theoretically be able to achieve against ‘no-caution to the wind’ Rayo and ‘only in La Liga thanks to the tax man’ Eibar. So he and Javier Mascherano are likely to see a lot more of each other in the middle during Leo’s injury.
Messi may be out, but a club of Barça’s excessive financial advantage and player prestige cannot use it as an excuse. The plan now is surviving not thriving. Points over panache. Meaning come his return, the blaugrana must be on top or close enough in the league and looking safe to quality in Europe. That should be achievable. Looking at the eight matches ahead, I’d set the over-under at 18 (5 wins and 3 draws).