By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Barcelona's miserable week was about to take a turn for the worse. Brutally beaten by Bayern Munich on Wednesday as Lionel Messi watched on helplessly from the bench, the Catalans found themselves 2-1 down at home to Betis on Sunday in what was another poor performance. Luckily, this time their saviour was primed for a starring cameo role. With just over half an hour left, on came Messi to make the difference. And what a difference it was.
Even the Argentine's appearance on the sidelines appeared to lift his side and the crowd at Camp Nou. As he waited on the edge of the pitch to replace David Villa, the striker scored a header to make it 2-2. The psychological balance had shifted. The stage was set.
And just three minutes after his timely re-emergence, Messi curled a fantastic free kick into the top right-hand corner to make it 3-2. This was the inspiration that Barcelona had been missing. Leo, though, was merely getting started.
|MESSI MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|60'||GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAL FOR BARCELONA!! WHO ELSE? LIONEL MESSI!!! The Argentine whips an utterly sensational free kick into the top-right corner! Amazing, he's only been on the park two minutes!|
|71'||GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAL FOR BARCELONA!! THEY ARE REALLY TURNING ON THE STYLE NOW!! Iniesta wonderfully flicks the ball out to the right of the box for Alexis, who unselfishly tees up Messi at the back post, and the Argentine stabs home from two yards! Sublime stuff.|
Further chances came and went for the Catalans in the last 20 minutes. In the dying seconds of the match, Messi burst through the Betis defence all alone and looked certain to claim his hat-trick, only to be thwarted by an alert Adrian. And as he ran off the pitch, the Argentine swung a kick at the ball in anger, as if a week's frustration had all been encapsulated in one isolated moment.
"Messi is in good condition to compete," Barca's sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said afterwards. "But surely not for 90 minutes. He is a marvellous player and he made the match more easy."
That was an understatement. This victory had looked anything but guaranteed until the 25-year-old's introduction. Barca had been behind after just two minutes and trailed again at the interval following an unstoppable strike from Ruben Perez. Looking fragile in defence once again and missing chances at the other end, the Catalans were making a meal of a match they would be expected to win comfortably at home - with or without Messi.
"The management of his injury, working morning and evening - without that, he would not have been ready for this game," coach Tito Vilanova told the media later on Sunday.
So Messi made the difference to all but wrap up La Liga, as Barca lead by 11 points with four rounds remaining and the Catalans could claim the title on Wednesday if Real Madrid fail to beat Malaga in a rearranged match due to the capital club's participation in the Copa del Rey final later this month.
But while Tito talks up Barca's management of Messi's injury, fans will wonder why the forward featured for 90 minutes in Munich when clearly well below full fitness, then appeared as a substitute at Athletic Bilbao last weekend only to sit out the entire second leg of the club's Champions League semi-final against the German team on Wednesday.
Vilanova had been planning to introduce Messi on Wednesday if his side had managed to score a couple of goals against Bayern (after losing the first leg 4-0), yet with their star man on the sidelines, the Catalans effectively surrendered the tie. In fact, many socios stayed at home upon hearing that the Argentine had been left out of the starting line-up. The 7-0 aggregate defeats tells a torrid tale of Barca's defence versus Bayern - but also of how much they missed Messi (unfit at the Allianz Arena and absent altogether in the second match).
Better management could have seen the player steer clear of injury in the first place. Had he been rested after playing at altitude for Argentina in Bolivia, the Argentine may never have been hurt at all in the Champions League last-16 tie at Paris Saint-German. So Barca fans will soon have La Liga to celebrate, but will wonder what may have been in Europe with a fully fit Leo in their team. The coaching staff, meanwhile, must manage their finest footballer with the utmost care next season and also look for viable alternatives when he is unable to play. Because on Sunday's showing, they depend on him as much or perhaps even more than ever before.
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