By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was supposed to be an evening of celebration. Lionel Messi needed just two goals to surpass German great Gerd Muller's mark of 85 goals in a calendar year and break yet another record. The Camp Nou crowd was expectant, but the night ended amid drama and tristesse as their hero departed not with his arms aloft but upon a stretcher, holding his head and wincing in pain.
Messi virtually never suffers from injuries these days, but the discomfort this time was tangible. The Argentine, left out of the starting line-up but introduced in the second period, went through on goal with just minutes remaining and, forced wide by Benfica goalkeeper Artur, turned and tried a shot with his left from a tight angle, only to fall awkwardly and remain floored as the Catalan congregation watched in horror.
The result was academic, with Barca already confirmed as winners of Group G, but the injury to Messi meant the Camp Nou crowd of just over 50,000 went home amid anxiety and depression, eager for news of their humble hero.
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That depends on Messi's evolution over the coming days, but after fielding the Argentine in this meaningless match on Wednesday, the Catalan club must exercise caution with their fabulous forward in the coming days.
Messi always wants to play and will be keen to surpass Muller's mark, even though he constantly claims he values collective cheer over individual success. The 25-year-old's peerless powers of recovery will likely see him fit for the trip to Real Betis in La Liga on Sunday, then, and eager to participate, but with a healthy advantage over title rivals Real Madrid in the Primera Division, Barca would be wise to rest their top talent at the weekend.
After the game in Seville, the Catalans meet Segunda side Cordoba in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday in Andalucia, before a top-of-the-table tussle with Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou the following weekend. Then comes the club's final match of 2012, at Valladolid in La Liga.
Messi could conceivably play in all of them (and will want to), but the club would do well to look after their long-term interests and select their star man only when he has fully overcome his current fragile state. After all, the record is merely a milestone; an arithmetical accomplishment which pales into insignificance when compared to the possible ramifications of an extended absence for Barca's best player. Four, three or even two games should be sufficient for Leo to break the mark in any case, and if not, there is always next year.
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