Thursday, 14 November 2013

Peter Staunton: Neymar, Fabregas & Alexis must step up in Messi's absence

Barcelona has had to shuffle their deck in light of the Argentine's injuries so far this season, which will have to continue as he takes an enforced rest
Lionel Messi
Barcelona is facing a reality that was once too bleak to think about: Lionel Messi cannot be relied upon. The centerpiece of the Barca-verse is not the rampaging, relentless goalscoring player of bygone seasons. He has regressed from a player once untouchable to one for whom allowances must be made.
The injury suffered against Betis on Sunday night, a torn hamstring muscle, is his third of the campaign so far. By the end of the year, he will have missed around three months of football because of injury in 2013. 

He's arguably not been fully fit since hobbling off in the Champions League quarterfinals against Paris Saint-Germain in April. That he took to the field for the second leg a week later was shocking. He didn't look ready to return. Barcelona, and Messi himself, is paying long-term consequences for rushing him back from injuries.

In total, he has played less than 70 percent of the Liga season thus far. For the first time in a long time it's Messi's supporting cast up front commanding the plaudits.

This season Barcelona has proven itself capable of playing without Messi. It's had to. Without him Barca been no worse off in this campaign. 

This type of situation is, essentially, why Neymar was brought to the club. He is at Barcelona to complement Messi in the first-choice XI but also to lead the line in his absence. 

Likewise, Gerardo Martino has coaxed the best from Alexis Sanchez on the right-hand side. Those two will probably form Barcelona's attacking shape for the remainder of the calendar year with the excellent Cesc Fabregas operating in tandem with them. 

On the night Messi was injured, again, Fabregas played centrally, scoring twice and setting up one more. He's shown he can fill in there and relieve Messi of his burden when he is unfit. 

Cesc has urged his teammate to rest properly until the injury is fully healed. Messi has been hampered, time and again, by the same problem, and it's clear he's not recovering properly between bouts of injury.

Between now and the winter break, Barcelona should not face the sternest of examinations in La Liga - with no Clasico or Atletico to play - nor the Champions League - with only Cetlic and Ajax to come - but this period is crucial for another reason.

Martino has proven he can rotate his options and find a way to win without Messi, something no other Barcelona coach was brave enough to do. Now, he has no choice. No player is invincible and Barcelona is discovering that to its detriment about Messi this season.

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