In the case of Lionel Messi and the world's most famously bruised knee, hindsight is too easy. In the case of Tito Vilanova and the new Spanish inquisition, the first-year Barcelona manager deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Messi, as the whole world knows by now, injured his knee Wednesday night in Barcelona's Champions League draw against Benfica. In the 84th minute, with the match scoreless, Messi collided with Benfica keeper Artur Moraes and fell awkwardly in the box.
As he lay grimacing on that pitch, the panic barreled in like a Carles Puyol set piece. Messi, one blog declared, had injured himself needlessly in what amounted to a meaningless match. Before the night had ended, the inquisition had begun.
Vilanova, who had decided to play Messi as a second-half substitute while the rest of Barcelona's regulars enjoyed a night off, faced the inevitable in his postmatch presser. Why, the assembled media wanted to know, had he allowed Messi to play when nothing was on the line?
Vilanova didn't say it, at least not in as many words, but he might as well have. And since he didn't, I will. Why wouldn't Messi have played?
Messi sits only one goal behind Gerd Müller's record of 85 goals in a calendar year. With little time left in 2012, an injury might have ruined Messi's chance to break the mark. Injuries can happen at any time, but Vilanova drew questions over playing Messi in a "meaningless" match. Long before kickoff, Barcelona had already clinched top spot in Group G.
Reports on Thursday indicated Messi's injury was not serious. Messi had suffered a bone contusion and remained hopeful of playing this weekend and breaking Müller's record (via The Independent). ESPN FC even reported that Messi worked out in Barca's gym less than a day after the world nearly ended.
But for this discussion, all that is immaterial. No one, not even Messi, could have known Wednesday night that he would be fine by Thursday morning. Second-guessing is too easy after the fact, even if that's exactly what most did with Vilanova on Wednesday evening.
What's more important here is that Messi wanted to play and was scheduled to play, as Vilanova revealed in his post-match press conference (per ESPN.co.uk):
Messi playing 30 minutes was talked through. It was part of his physical training program. You can also get injured in training. I gave him the last 30 minutes because it was a good workout and he loves competing. I would do it again.
(People say) we should sub him out every time we're leading 3-0 lest he picks up an injury. We've never behaved this way. If I had a do-over I'd make the same decision seeing that he can get injured at any moment.
Fair enough. It's roughly the same way smokers argue that a person can die just as easily crossing the street as smoking a pack a day for life.
The argument is not completely failproof. One could argue that training sessions were more meaningful this week than the Benfica match. That said, Vilanova and Barcelona would be wrong to live in constant fear over an injury to their Argentine superstar.
Modern players follow detailed fitness programs. Diets, training and playing time are often micro-managed. For a player of Messi's global stature and world-class talent, this is undoubtedly the case. He was scheduled and prepared to play Wednesday night.
Messi hurt himself in the process, but it's worth pointing out that he is rarely injured. Messi made 60 appearances in all competitions for Barcelona last season, including 37 of 38 league matches. He has made no fewer than 50 appearances in all competitions each season since 2008-09.
What's more, Messi was already well-rested after sitting out Barcelona's Copa del Rey victory over Alavés last week.
Wednesday's match represented Messi's last chance in 11 days to equal or break Müller's record in Barcelona's home stadium. But instead of playing for the record, Messi was just playing another game.
Vilanova, meanwhile, did what he felt was right for his team and his superstar.
It's hard to fault either for that.
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