By Peter Staunton
Barcelona are facing a reality that was once too bleak to think about: Lionel Messi cannot be relied upon. The centrepiece of the Barca-verse is not the rampaging, relentless goalscorer of bygone seasons. He has regressed from a player once untouchable to one for whom allowances must be made.
|MESSI'S MISERY IN 2013
|HAMSTRING INJURY AGAINST PSG
||Messi was subsituted at half-time in Barcelona's 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League: Out for five days.|
|RECCURRENCE OF INJURY
|MAY 12th||Struggled to regain full fitness since April and was forced off against Atletico Madrid: Out for nearly three weeks.|
|Martino reveals he took Messi off as he had suffered a knock against Atletico in the Supercopa final first leg: Out for four days.|
|RIGHT THIGH MUSCLE INJURY
||Barca say Messi was taken off as a precaution against Almeria. Scored in the 21st minute and departed in the 29th: Out for another two weeks|
|MORE MESSI WOES
||Estimated to be out for up to eight weeks after suffering a hamstring tear against Betis - played just 21 minutes.|
He's arguably not been fully fit since hobbling off in the Champions League quarter-finals 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, are paying long-term consequences for rushing him back from injuries.
In total, he has played less than 70 per cent 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 have proven themselves capable of playing without Messi. They've had to. Without him they have 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 team-mate 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 are discovering that to their detriment about Messi this season.