By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was the cruelest of blows. Lionel Messi's recent muscle injury has left Barcelona hamstrung at the worst possible time and seemingly contributed to the Catalans downfall in the Champions League semi-finals after a half-fit Leo failed to help his team in the Blaugrana's brutal battering at Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. It looked like extremely bad luck, yet it could almost certainly have been avoided.
Messi constantly claims that individual awards and personal marks mean little to him; that he is more concerned with winning the top trophies for club and country. "Indivdual prizes don't excite me that much," the Argentine claimed ahead of his fourth Ballon d'Or earlier this year, while he also played down his recent record of scoring in 19 consecutive rounds of La Liga, saying "The important thing was the win," after his momentous goal against Celta on March 30th. But almost a month later, he has not featured again in the Primera Division and the pursuit of such records has cost his team dear.
|TOO MUCH, TOO YOUNG: MESSI SINCE 2008
|51 games (38 goals)
53 games (47 goals)
55 games (53 goals)
60 games (73 goals)
47 games (57 goals)
Messi, of course, always wants to play. Sometimes, as on Tuesday, he should probably be more honest with himself, hold his hands up and admit he is not in the optimum condition. So often, however, he has starred for Barcelona when half-fit, and against PSG in the second leg earlier this month he emerged from the bench to save his side when they badly needed inspiration and, more importantly, a goal.
It is well known that players pick up injuries after international breaks, particularly when they have travelled half way around the world to feature for their countries. Pep Guardiola always exercised caution in such situations and Messi rarely started matches after a World Cup qualifier in South America. Tito should have followed suit.
This time last year, Messi was chasing Gerd Muller's mark of 67 goals in a single season and the Argentine eventually overhauled the German great in early May. By that time, however, he had looked below his best in the home loss to Real Madrid (which saw the Catalans wave goodbye to La Liga), and in the two semi-final matches versus Chelsea. The 25-year-old was ineffective at Stamford Bridge and then imprecise at Camp Nou, missing a penalty in the 2-2 draw which saw the Blaugrana beaten by Roberto Di Matteo's men.
This term, something similar has happened. Messi hit the heights in the build-up to the Ballon d'Or and smashed another magical Muller mark as he hit 91 goals in 2012 for club and country to beat the Bayern legend's 85 strikes from 1972. But none of that was important, of course. Not for Leo, nor for Barcelona. So why the obsession with such records? Why not rest your star man, your go-to guy, your commander-in-chief, for the important tests ahead?
Muller, meanwhile, was gracious and genuinely happy for his records to be broken. And now his beloved Bayern are on the verge of a place in the Champions League final, he will be even happier still. Some 34 years after pulling on a Bayern shirt for the last time, he has inadvertently played his part in the Bavarians' semi-final success, with Leo looking tired and off the pace on Tuesday. So Barca, instead of chasing rainbows, should have focused on their bread and butter, put their foot down - and given Messi a rest. Because La Liga, after all, was won a long, long time ago.
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