When Lionel Messi was stretchered off the pitch in Wednesday night's Champions League Group G match between Barcelona and Benfica, it initially did not look good. Silence descended over Camp Nou.
The diminutive Argentinean went down clutching his left knee having been caught by Benfica stopper Artur but the club released a positive statement later in the evening.. The Argentinean suffered only bruising and, in a piece of happy news for Real Betis, he should be fine to play at the weekend.
The last time Messi was crocked was in September 2010. Playing Atletico at the Calderon, Messi was floored by the bruiser Tomas Ujfalusi, something of a cult figure at the club if not a very cultured defender.
Still, he missed only two games. He might be small but he can take a knock. The question is, could Barça deal with the blow of losing Messi for a lengthy spell? Quick answer: probably.
The secret to Barcelona's success is the famed La Masia academy, instigated by Johan Cruyff in the early 1990s. The idea was simple, and based on Ajax's total football program under Rinus Michels. Get the kids playing a certain way, embed this is in their DNA, sit back and watch.
The plan came to fruition under Pep Guardiola and reached its natural conclusion under Tito Vilanova in a recent game against Levante: all 11 players on the field at the final whistle were La Masia graduates.
Simply put, most Barça players can play a variety of positions. Cesc Fabregas is able to slip in to the advanced role and Andres Iniesta has played in the false nine position for Spain. But then Messi's real position is difficult to pinpoint as he has license to roam and especially enjoys cutting across the back line from right to left before shooting.
The Argentinean is a different breed and singularly irreplaceable. But as a unit, Barcelona would still be the best side at what they do because it is what they know. The more an action is repeated, the more natural its execution becomes. And Barcelona has plenty more coming through the ranks.
"When you see Barcelona B training and playing, you see players with a future and it is satisfying to see the continuity of a project put in place years ago," said sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta in a recent interview. "The great players like Xavi or Iniesta have consolidated themselves over a long period of time, not at 18 years old. We don’t expect to turn Sergi Roberto into Xavi overnight. But there are no straight substitutes, nor is it a cloning process. Although they are players with similar qualities, each one is different."
Messi is clearly the best player in his position in the world and he will probably pick up a fourth FIFA World Player award in Zurich in January. Especially if he betters Gerd Muller's 1972 record of 85 goals in a calendar year.
He has three league matches and a Copa del Rey tie to bag the two necessary. Vilanova recently said we may never see his like again.
Barcelona without Messi would be just fine, if not quite as exhilarating to watch. And Messi without Barcelona? Would the Argentinean be as effective without his La Masia colleagues around? We'll probably never know. Might as well just enjoy it while it's there.
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