Barcelona Rebounds, But New Messi Injury Keeps Heat on Beleaguered Power
Barcelona rebounded on Tuesday, but all remains rather nervy at Camp Nou these days.
A 2-1 win over Villarreal put Barcelona back in the win column after Saturday's loss at Granada, secured three points and keeps the perennial powerhouse in the mix at the top of a surprisingly congested table in La Liga. Barcelona is rather fortunate that Real Madrid remains substandard and that Atletico Madrid is still in the midst of figuring out its transition from the Antoine Griezmann-Diego Godin-led side of the past to the Joao Felix revolution of the present. In past years, the way Barcelona has started the season–a modest 10 points through six games–could perhaps be enough to put the club in a few-match hole.
The win came at a cost, though, and just how substantial of a cost that is remains to be seen. Lionel Messi, a day after receiving FIFA's player of the year award in Milan, made his first start of the season after overcoming a calf injury all summer, and he didn't take long to contribute, assisting on Griezmann's header in the sixth minute. He didn't last past halftime though, forced off with a fresh injury, and, hindsight being 20-20, it makes you question what the rush to throw him into the lineup was so soon after a flight from Milan and a day spent entertaining cameras, colleagues and executives and not training and getting treatment. He himself said on Monday that he's not at 100% yet, and with dates against Inter Milan and Sevilla coming up, you wonder if Barcelona should have been a bit more prudent with how it reintroduced the 32-year-old star back into the lineup.
It's unclear yet how severe Messi's new injury is, but what is exceedingly clear is how reliant Barcelona remains on its maestro–so much so that it felt compelled to accelerate his return to the lineup. Without him, it has sputtered against opponents it would normally obliterate and looks more uncertain of itself for a prolonged period of time than it has in ages.
Griezmann spoke after the game and indicated that the club needs more time to integrate its two new key pieces–those being himself and former Ajax star Frenkie de Jong–and perhaps there's some truth to that. It also doesn't help that Jordi Alba, such a vital part of overloading opposing defenses in the attacking half, is also injured.
"We're definitely far from the very best version of Barcelona, but with more training and more time we'll get better," Griezmann said after the match, through a translation.
On the plus side for Barcelona, Arthur Melo continues to look the part–his long-range stunner that wound up being the match-winner was gorgeous–and arguably its toughest Champions League group match, at Dortmund, is out of the way, and it escaped that with a point.
That doesn't answer the club's continued yips on the road, and it doesn't magically heal what's ailing Messi. It does Barcelona no good to hurry him back into action if he's not at full health, yet manager Ernesto Valverde is also well aware that he was probably fortunate to be retained after last season–yes, winning the league is no longer good enough at a club like Barcelona–and that one poor stretch of results could spell the end of his time on the bench. That doesn't necessarily add up to a sound decision-making formula.
It's a long season, and the acquisitions Barcelona made were supposed to alleviate the reliance on Messi. It's entirely possible that Griezmann settles into his role and finds his top form, which would in turn allow Messi to recuperate and not feel the urgency to carry the club every match, all while helping the club feature a more multi-pronged approach. It's also possible that Griezmann is not an ideal fit for Barcelona after all and that father time finally does enough to humanize Messi and knock Luis Suarez down a level and put the club in real jeopardy of falling from its perch.
One thing is for certain, though. The start of this season indicates that what follows will be anything but straightforward and standard for a club whose success has long been assumed.