Missing Messi?

The news that Lionel Messi will be out of action for up to two months with a hamstring injury sustained during Barcelona’s game against Real Betis is confirmation of what many have suspected since the season began. The world’s greatest player is human after all and has been finally forced on to the sidelines until he is genuinely fit.

Messi limped off after barely 20 minutes of Barca’s 4-1 win on Sunday with the score at 0-0. That his teammates went on to win comfortably without him, albeit against a struggling Betis side now propping up La Liga, showed that the Catalans have plenty of other tools in their locker and are not always as reliant on the Argentine as some would like to suggest.

In his prime, Messi is an entertainer, a showman, making his art look easy and playing with a perennial smile etched across his boyish face. This season, the goals have relatively dried up and the smile has disappeared. Messi has looked tired, frustrated and worried. Relentlessly fouled by lesser opponents, his default response is to keep the ball and score. Since August, however, he has found brick walls more often than the back of the net.

Messi will miss Barcelona’s remaining Champions League games against Celtic and Ajax, but with qualification virtually assured, that is no disaster. Similarly, the Catalans’ coming Primera programme is primarily against teams any Barca line-up should have little trouble overcoming with or without Messi, with the exception of a mid-January visit to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico Madrid.

Marca has branded 2013 as Messi’s ‘annus horribilis’, pointing to the seemingly endless run of injuries that have hampered him at the tail end of last season and have continued to plague him throughout the first part of this one. Injuring his hamstring in Paris back in April against Paris Saint-Germain, Messi continued to be brought in and out of the team during the final phase of Barca’s title-winning campaign. Hopes of rest and recuperation over the summer were somewhat hit with a schedule both personal and preseason that AS this week tallied as taking in 122,333km of travel across 64 days.

As early as Barca’s visit to Asia, the Argentine was clearly in discomfort, but new Coach Tata Martino appeared mindful of the need to protect his prize asset, notably substituting Messi early in the second half of an opening weekend 7-0 win over Levante. There were signs of trouble again in the Supercopa against Atletico before Messi was forced off at Almeria in September, missing the Champions League win in Glasgow.

Despite his talismanic qualities, the effects of his enforced absence will arguably be felt more by Messi himself than by his club. The 26-year-old will end the calendar year with 42 goals to his name, impressive in itself for a mere mortal, but a demise from the record 91 he netted in 2012, passing Gerd Muller’s record after bagging 58 goals in 2010 and the same number again in 2011.

The other stakeholder in Messi’s fitness is Argentina. The striker is scheduled to return to Buenos Aires for the latter part of his rehabilitation and will be keenly observed. Returning to action in a World Cup year, Messi is a vital ingredient in his country’s bid to land football’s greatest prize on their home continent and a World Cup winner’s medal would fill one of the few remaining gaps in the great man’s trophy cabinet.