When Lionel Messi went down injured in last month’s La Liga match against Las Palmas, all of Catalunya, and the footballing world, held its breath. The diagnosis: out for eight weeks with torn knee ligaments. It could’ve been worse — much worse — but still; for Messi, and for Barca supporters, eight weeks is eight weeks too long.
Of course, even without Messi, conditions were only ever going to get so bad at Camp Nou. Threats of relegation and/or mid-table mediocrity are obviously bogus, but that doesn’t mean the crisis alarm can’t be prematurely pulled. And with resurgent teams like Atletico Madrid, Celta Vigo, and Villarreal all vying for those coveted top-four spots, a few poor weeks can really hinder a title campaign.
Take the greatest footballer on Earth away from a team, and that team has to change their approach. It’s something usually takes time. For Barcelona, it may have just taken one week.
That first week without Messi wasn’t terrible, though not exemplary either. A 2-1 Primera loss to Sevilla at the fiery Sanchez Pizjuan was the kind of result that any side, rich or poor, could’ve fallen victim to. But the nature of the Catalans’ performance wasn’t as worrying as the scoreline might’ve suggested.
Barcelona dominated the home team in shots by 28-to-12, in addition to a 63-37 percent possession claim. Although Unai Emery’s counterattacking juggernaut caught them out twice on the night — which turned out to be two times too many — the match clearly showed that Barca were up for their sans-Messi challenge.
The situation further crystallized on the following matchday, as Barca thrashed Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou by a score of 5-2. Neymar scored four goals on the day, thriving in what can only be described as The Messi Role.
When Messi is playing, the post-tiki-taka ball movement always eventually goes through the Argentine en route to goal. This is as vital in Barca’s system now as it’s ever been. Without the decisive forward making a beeline toward the goal, it’s just 11 guys kicking the ball back-and-forth.
Messi turns the balloon into a magical unicorn. But when Messi isn’t there, a substitute conduit is needed. Neymar has the tools to fill that void better than probably anybody else in the world. For Barca, it’s a luxury that is literally priceless.
And then there’s Luis Suarez.
The mercurial Uruguayan added the third and most recent wrinkle to Barca-sans-Messi last weekend when he tallied all three goals in Barca’s 3-1 win over Eibar. The hat-trick makes it seven Liga goals for Suarez this season, just one behind Neymar’s eight. While Neymar’s wide industrial endeavor acts as a pipeline to the goal, Suarez’s ingenuity is the spiderweb that keeps the attack all together and relevant. Very often you’ll see Barca score a goal that’s only possible because Suarez happens to do something ingenious, be it an audacious heel-flick or an unsightly dummy.
It was a serious — and wholly justifiable — question: Can Barcelona really stay the course without Messi? The truest answer is yes. This doesn’t mean that Barca are even remotely better or more dangerous without the Argentine maestro running the show, but it does mean that they’re still really good without him. Like really, really good. Maybe even good enough to keep winning everything insight.
Going into the Las Palmas match, in which Messi got injured, Barca were sitting in fifth place. Three matchweeks and a whole lot of crisis-talk later, they now sit atop La Liga’s summit, even on points with Real Madrid. Messi’s absence is clarifying a dead-wrong assumption that some may have about Barcelona, and that’s that without Messi, Barca aren’t still uniquely great.
Not only does that thesis damn all of the work done in recent years by hard-working football minds like Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Jordi Roura, Luis Enrique, and many others, who’ve created a system at Barcelona that flourishes under a multitude of unforeseen circumstances. But most of all, it disregards the unearthly talents of Neymar and Luis Suarez, who, if we’re being honest, might also be two of the greatest footballers to ever live.
This Saturday, Barcelona will try to remain top of La Liga as they visit 13th place Getafe. Messi is slated to return to Barca’s first-team just in time for next month’s Clasico against Real Madrid.