Barcelona may have gone through a ridiculous makeover, both in terms of personnel and identity, since the heady days of the Pep Guardiola era, but the one constant in the team has been one man, and one man alone.
The likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol may have either retired or moved on to newer chapters, but the maestro Lionel Messi has been there, done that and seen it all. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Barcelona’s all-time top-scorer and winner of all trophies he has competed for, Messi has been the one constant as Barcelona have moved from being an academy-dominated team to one of the biggest spenders in today’s market.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Argentine genius though. Many times, he has had to carry this team through to the final whistle, conjuring up one moment of magic after the other in order to either bail his team out or ensure they sneak through with the narrowest of wins.
But as he reaches the twilight of his career, Barca need to start planning for life after Messi. The little magician cannot go on forever, and has already showed a new side to his game as his advancing years have seen him lose that bit of acceleration and explosiveness that made him such a revered goal machine for more than a decade.
This does not mean his influence has decreased, though bare stats may say he does not score as many as he should. What he has done better than ever is to control the pace of the game and ensure that those around him have a bigger role to play when it comes to banging in the goals.
This is similar to what Ryan Giggs did during his latter years, converting from an out and out winger who could terrorise the best of defenders to a calm midfield marshal who dictated play for Manchester United. Coming back to the Nou Camp, Messi has led another solid start to the season for La Blaugrana, and though the defence is nowhere near competitive, the attack has ensured Barca have moved to the top of the table in both La Liga and the Champions League.
But we did get a glimpse of life after Messi during this weekend’s match against Sevilla. The skipper was again at the heart of everything good for the hosts, scoring and assisting one each as Ernesto Valverde’s men raced to a two-nil lead against the then league toppers.
Then came the moment that could perhaps have a huge impact on the title race as well as the future of this Barcelona team. Messi, when fighting for the ball, fell and landed awkwardly on his right hand, and immediately clutched that arm. The worst of many of Barca fans’ fears came true, as Messi was forced to come off and later results showed he had fractured his arm.
The result: out for at least three weeks, and even more crucially, him missing next weekend’s El Clasico clash with heated rivals Real Madrid. Barcelona were pretty ordinary without their talisman, and thanks to their two-goal cushion, came out 4-2 winners. But they should consider themselves lucky to escape with a win, and be especially thankful to goalkeeper Marc-Ander ter Stegen, who made some important saves to deny Sevilla and keep intact the hosts’ lead.
Valverde has a lot to ponder over the next week, and the most important will be how to fill the void left empty by Messi’s absence when first Inter Milan visit Camp Nou for a blockbuster Champions League clash between multiple European trophy winners on Wednesday night, after which comes the match everyone is waiting for when Madrid roll into town on Sunday.
Keep in mind that this will be the first Clasico since 2007 not to feature Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The other players will have to step up for Barca, that is for sure, so that the hosts can not only maintain their lead at the top but also heap more misery on their eternal rivals.
Here’s five players who can step up in Messi’s absence against Madrid…
Malcom was highly-sought after during the summer, and indeed over the past few transfer windows, and it was a bit of a surprise when Barcelona announced his signing, for he had already undergone a medical at AS Roma. As expected, things did not sit well between the capital-based club and the defending La Liga champions.
And while Barca got their man, Valverde has barely given him the platform to shine and show us what made them hijack his real with the Italian giants at the last moment and sign him. Against a Madrid team struggling defensively especially, Malcom could be the outlet from which Barca decide to attack, for he possesses the trickery and pace to trouble their backline. He will need to perform as well over the next few weeks, for if rumours are to be believed, Barca could send him out on loan to clubs like Arsenal, and the Brazilian would surely not like his Spanish adventure to end with such a whimper.