Barcelona have a Lionel Messi problem.
They have lots of other problems too, but this is perhaps the most difficult to solve. The problem is that Messi is their one and only solution, and when the Argentine is not 100 percent fit, they still have to turn to him, as they did once again against Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Messi’s 81st-minute penalty split the sides in a nervy encounter at Camp Nou. It was a match that emphasised how important he is to Barcelona and showed they are over-reliant and over-using him.
Often when times are hard the diminutive genius is summoned to ease the burden. He did it a few weeks ago against Eibar when he scored four goals, sucking out the venom from Camp Nou as fans complained about the board.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu came under fire again here with fans singing for him to resign, while Quique Setien’s assistant Eder Sarabia was given vocal support too. The coach had angered players after he was spotted lambasting Barcelona’s Clasico performance on the sideline at the Santiago Bernabeu last weekend, but supporters backed his foul-mouthed critiques of Gerard Pique, Antoine Griezmann and others.
In the first half Barcelona’s only threat was emergency signing Martin Braithwaite, and without being rude to the Danish hitman, that speaks volumes about the state of this side. Braithwaite twice was denied by Real Sociedad goalkeeper Alex Remiro, played through on goal both times by Messi. Then the striker had a goal ruled out for offside.
His willing running was a boon for the Barcelona No.10, who could play through balls all day. And it’s especially important at the moment, with Messi seeming physically incapable of his trademark dribbling exploits.
Of course over the past few years he has slowed a little, as is only natural when approaching his 33rd birthday, but he has adapted his game to maintain his influence. Reports say that since January Messi has been carrying a minor thigh problem, which, while not enough to keep him off the pitch, is not letting him dominate to his usual extent.
Barcelona should let Messi rest, but they cannot.
Luis Enrique caused himself problems with Messi and Neymar back in the day by forcing the duo to rest at times, but he had the gumption to stick with it, ensuring they arrived in good shape at the final stages of the season. Setien isn’t in as strong a position as Lucho was, grateful even just to be at Barcelona, and the team need Messi all the time.
Messi had scored in only one of the last seven matches prior to this, against Eibar, and even though he has seven goals and six assists in his last 10 games, to watch him play you can tell not all is well.
The forward was hit and miss against Real Sociedad, with two bad touches in the area, one in either half, stopping him from getting clear sights of goal. He also spun an effort wide in the first half, the sort of chance we’ve grown used to seeing sneak into the bottom corner.
Messi had an effort pushed wide by Remiro and had the whole of Real Sociedad’s side back inside their area trying to defend his free-kick, which they managed successfully. He was brought down twice in good positions as the defence scrambled to deal with him, while lunging at Mikel Merino to earn a yellow card.
For the first time in his career he has been booked in three successive games – carded against Napoli and Real Madrid before this.
His frustration is showing.
Eventually Barcelona got the breakthrough, with VAR rewinding back a couple of minutes to penalise Robin Le Normand’s handball from an Arturo Vidal cross. Messi slotted the penalty coolly before releasing his tension in a rousing celebration.
He will have to keep it up for the next three months, though what he most needs is a break. Even a diminished Messi is still an essential one for Barcelona.