Barcelona can cope with loss of Lionel Messi

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Lionel Messi arrived at the Camp Nou at 10:05 on Monday morning for a date with destiny. He knew it would not be an easy day after limping from the Benito Villamarin pitch just over 12 hours earlier clutching his left leg after 20 minutes of Barca’s 4-1 win at Betis.

After tests the official line came from the club at 1:35 p.m. The diagnosis was that the player has "a torn hamstring muscle in his left thigh and is expected to miss the next six to eight weeks."

Although the injury comes as a disruption to Barca's near-perfect start to the season, the win moved them three points clear at the top of La Liga. In the long term it could potentially be a positive for both club and Messi's Argentina national side.

He will now play no more football in 2014, missing four league games for Barca and international friendlies against Ecuador and Bosnia–Herzegovina in the coming 10 days.

The aim is to be ready for what should still be a top-of-the-table clash at Atletico Madrid on Jan. 12. And it is anticipated he should then be fit and strong enough to face the challenges 2014 will throw at him, both for Barca battling on three fronts and with Argentina at the World Cup in Brazil.

The four-time Ballon d’Or winner had began to suffer niggling muscular injuries towards the end of last season; Sunday's breakdown, in hindsight, was always likely to occur. It is already the fourth time Messi has suffered a muscular injury this season.

The first part of his recovery will take place in Barcelona before he travels back to Argentina over the Christmas period, but if he can eventually come back fully fit both his national team and Barca will reap the benefits in the coming calendar year.

The first warning sign of problems came in a Champions League quarterfinal first leg at the Parc des Princes on April 2 against PSG. Although Messi managed to finish the season he was nowhere near full fitness in the subsequent disastrous semifinal first leg against Bayern Munich that Barca lost 4-0.

It has also been evident that the stop-start nature of Messi's season has affected his game in recent weeks. Although he scored twice against Milan last week in the Champions League he appeared slower than normal at times, in particular when racing Nigel de Jong to a through ball just before he hit his first goal from open play in over 400 minutes.

For Barca he will definitely miss home games against Granada and Villarreal as well as tricky trips to Getafe and Athletic, and with a three- and six-point advantage over the two Madrid sides to defend it is now time for other members of the talented squad to step up to the plate.

Cesc Fabregas warned after the game that Messi needs "to stop and take care of the injury. I suffered with something similar for a year-and-a-half, they are injuries that you think are OK but they keep coming back."

Fabregas went on to say that he himself is "in good form. When I play I always try to stand out and make a difference. It helps me build my confidence and I always try to take advantage of my opportunities."

It will be Cesc, along with Neymar, who opened the scoring at Betis, who will now have more opportunity than ever to show what they can do as Barca look to fill their Messi-shaped hole.

Another player who scored on Sunday was Pedro who chipped in with the second goal after a great counterattack that saw him race almost the full length of the pitch.

Fabregas has four goals while Pedro has now hit six in La Liga, and both have been trusted to start all seven away games this season. Along with seven-goal Alexis Sanchez and Neymar, these are the players who can see Barca over the line until Messi returns.

Neymar continued to receive plenty of physical attention from Betis on Sunday, but it did not stop him from playing one of his best games yet in what has been an impressive four-goal start in La Liga.

Tata Martino claimed that Messi's injury on Sunday had nothing to do with the other injuries picked up already this term. Whether that is true is not so important; what is now crucial for Barca is that their little star can benefit from the rest, forget 2013, and start 2014 in the way he finished 2012.

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