Lionel Messi was forced from Barcelona's Tuesday UEFA Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain with what has been described as a mild hamstring strain. Messi, widely considered the world's best player and four-time winner of the Ballon d'Or, has been remarkably resilient throughout his career, but he is not immune to the sprains and strains that can fell mere mortals.
Fatigue is a huge factor that must be managed by the coaches and the sports science staff. At Barcelona, this is a huge concern.
Not only is the club playing through the normal La Liga season, but they regularly add Champions League and deep cup runs to their schedule. Add in international competitions and it's more surprising that players stay healthy at all.
In fact, it's that last part that is particularly worrisome. Messi is just returning from a spell with the Argentinian team that played in Bolivia. The extreme altitude got to the whole team, but definitely affected Messi. When an athlete in high condition like Messi is left vomiting on his boots, it's likely to be something that is going to take a while to recover from.
Barcelona uses a deep roster to keep its players as fresh as possible, but a player like Messi seldom rests. In 42 appearances so far this season, Messi is keeping up a huge pace for goals, but also for his work rate, ground covered and other more advanced statistical measures that suggest fatigue is well above average.
Perhaps Messi was lucky, given the injury to his teammate Javier Mascherano. Mascherano left not with a limp but on a stretcher after an awkward challenge left him with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee. Mascherano will miss more than a month while he rests and rehabs the injured knee, forcing him out of the return leg against PSG Wednesday.
Messi's success has often been as a result of his field vision and his low center of gravity. He's not immune to injuries, however. In the past he's had problems with his knee and a nasty high ankle sprain in 2010.
It is also thought that Messi uses minor injuries to take time off prior to bigger games without invoking the wrath of the Barca faithful that want to see their "Pulga" (flea) score goals at a breakneck pace, especially as part of a rivalry against Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.
Hamstring strains for physical attackers like Messi can be problematic. Players like Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero have missed weeks at a time with similar mild-to-moderate hamstring strains. The concern is that the healing needs to be complete or near complete to avoid a recurrence that can cost even more time.
Mild Grade I strains involve very little tearing of the muscle fibers and can be greatly helped by modern therapeutic techniques. Barcelona's medical staff is absolutely world class, starting with the staff at La Masia, the club's youth academy.
While Barca is not as open about their medical staff and sports science as some other top clubs, there is no doubt that the team is as high a priority as with others. Most top clubs, such as Real Madrid, Chelsea and AC Milan, spend a much higher percentage of their budgets on sports science, sports medicine and advanced research than their American counterparts.
If Messi can avoid an early recurrence of his strain, he should be able to return in a week to 10 days. That does put some pressure on him when it comes to playing in the return leg at Camp Nou. Dani Alves is already saying that playing without Messi will be a "challenge and an incentive," according to the club's website. They will use their La Liga match against Mallorca as something of a test run, though Tito Vilanova is not likely to tip his hand.
My expectation is that Messi will make it back for the return leg but may be used differently, perhaps as a mid-game sub against a PSG club that matches up well with the Catalans.
As anyone that's watched Messi over the last few years knows, anything is possible when it comes to his play. A hamstring is not going to change that, but he and the team want to make sure this does not become the kind of lingering problem that might force a change.
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