It's amazing how one hamstring, on one player, completely changed the narrative of Barcelona's season. Then again, when that player is Lionel Messi, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
When we look back on Barcelona's 2012-13 season, what will we first remember? Will it be the team's La Liga title, which will certainly be clinched soon? Or will we ultimately remember the team's embarrassing 7-0 loss in aggregate against Bayern Munich in a Champions League semifinal?
While hardcore Barcelona fans and "the glass is always half full" types will remember the title—as they should—the sting of a Barcelona's loss to Bayern Munich, with all of the world watching, will be the defining moment of this season to many.
And while the Catalans may not have beaten the German side with a healthy Messi in the first leg or any Messi at all in the second, he certainly would have helped.
There are many angles to consider here. The first should put an end to an old argument—Messi's teammates may, at times, make him look good, but his brilliance cannot be attributed solely to the quality of his teammates, as some folks contend.
Barcelona's lack of a cutting edge in the final third without him was palpable in the second leg. Ives Galarcep said it best:
Ives Galarcep @SoccerByIves
If anything, here's to this match and series silencing the "Messi's only good because he plays on a stacked team" cynics. #YesTheyDoExist5/1/2013, 7:35:29 PM
Perhaps it is time to flip that argument on its head. Perhaps it is Messi who makes his teammates look so good.
But the other angle is how manager Tito Vilanova handled Messi's injury. After he was clearly not match fit and generally ineffective in the first leg, Vilanova decided to bring him on as a substitute against Athletic Bilbao. And while he did score in that contest, he suddenly wasn't able to play against Bayern Munich.
To me, that is one of the worst decisions in Vilanova's career as a manager. Why risk him at all against Athletic Bilbao with a huge deficit to overcome against Bayern Munich? Let's be honest—as soon as the second leg started with Messi on the bench, we knew Bayern was advancing.
Now, the Catalans will enter the summer with far more questions than you would expect from a La Liga champion. Is the team's tiki-taka style going to be effective against more physical teams like Bayern Munich, or have the weaknesses in the strategy been exposed?
Can the team bolster its defense?
Will Barca need to add a more traditional striker to serve as a backup for Messi in case the star gets injured again or simply needs a break?
If Messi had been healthy for both legs and Bayern Munich moved on but the aggregate score was 3-1, maybe we wouldn't be asking these questions. Perhaps Barca would tip their hat to the Germans, note that they were simply the hotter side and go back to business as usual.
But after losing 7-0 on aggregate and being completely humiliated, Barcelona has some soul-searching to do. Don't get me wrong, this is still one of the finest teams in the world, but Messi's injury exposed some major flaws on the squad.
And in my opinion, that's why his hamstring will ultimately define this season. The La Liga title was great, but a 7-0 loss in aggregate to Bayern Munich will bring with it changes next season, mark my words.
Barcelona will not want to be embarrassed like that again.
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