By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It should have been a satisfactory soiree. Barcelona cancelled out David Villa's stunning strike to seal a hard-fought draw at Atletico Madrid which leaves them as firm favourites to claim the Spanish Supercopa, while Neymar emerged from the bench to head his first competitive goal for the Catalan club.
But the evening was soured by a performance which showed Barca still struggle against high-tempo teams and revealed weaknesses as Jordi Alba was given a torrid time by Diego Costa in defence, while Sergio Busquets was fortunate to avoid a red card, Xavi lacked legs and Andres Iniesta intensity in the midfield battle.
Most concerning of all, however, was the sight of Lionel Messi limping off at half-time with a thigh problem.
The Argentine suffered with injuries last term but only in the second half of the season. This time, he is injured at the beginning of the campaign and that has the alarm bells ringing at Camp Nou as signs of burn-out emerge.
Messi has played 50 or more games for Barcelona over the last five seasons, as well as travelling to turn out for Argentina in far-flung lands several times a year. In his younger years, he coped comfortably and even emerged practically from the beach to blast Barca to Supercopa success over Real Madrid in spectacular style in 2011-12.
But the sheer amount of games appears to be taking its toll and instead of approaching his peak at 26, the Argentine already appears to be on the way down physically. With barely a break since making his Barca bow as a teenager, the four-time Ballon d'Or winner is increasingly suffering from hamstring and thigh problems and was physically sick during the Catalans' 7-0 win at Levante on Sunday.
Dynamic duo | But Messi and Neymar have hardly played together yet
Then, he was withdrawn after 70 minutes by new boss Gerardo Martino. It was the first time Messi had been substituted by Barca without an injury in over three years. Leo wants to play every week, rain or shine, happy or sad, tip-top or tired. But Martino knows Messi's management will be crucial to his side's success this term. "I spoke to Messi and he understands he has to rest," the coach said on Sunday evening. And ahead of the Supercopa clash in Madrid, Martino joked: "I will be careful not to take Messi off five games in a row!"
However, Tata will not hesitate to do exactly that if he feels it is in the team's best interests. Messi, meanwhile, must learn that he cannot feature for every single minute of every single game. Last season he played persistently throughout autumn and winter only to be injured when Barca needed him most. And now he is sidelined with the season only two games old. It's a huge concern.
The anticipated association with Neymar has also taken a back seat. So far, the Brazilian and the Argentine have been on the pitch together for only six minutes this term - between the 64th and 70th against Levante after the summer signing was brought on and before Leo left the pitch to be replaced by Iniesta. "It is bad not being able to play with Messi," Neymar lamented on Wednesday night. "He is the best and everyone wants to play with him."
|It is bad not being able to play with Messi - he is the best in the world and everyone wants to play with him"
But while Neymar was signed to play alongside Messi, he could also be the long-term heir to the brilliant Argentine. Some players, such as Real Madrid's Raul, peak earlier when they become first-team regulars at a young age and that appears to be the case with Messi. His time at the top could be ticking.
"Messi will be the best in the world for the next two years or so," Brazil boss Luiz-Felipe Scolari said recently. Indeed, Barcelona believe the Argentine can go on for several seasons more at the top, but he is not expected to play well into his thirties at the very highest level and the Catalan club are well aware that he will be need to be managed with much caution over the coming campaigns. Their success is likely to depend on it.
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