Barcelona's reliance on Lionel Messi beginning to show

By Michael Maguire (columnist) 12 Apr 2013 08:52:46

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The end result is all that matters in football. Whether you tear a team to shreds for a five-goal win, or you just manage to snare a late winner despite being outplayed all over the park, the only thing that counts at the end of the day is which side got what they came for.

As expected by the vast majority, it was Barcelona who walked away from Camp Nou on Wednesday night having booked their place in the Champions League semi-finals. However, few would have predicted that the mighty Blaugrana would have to fight quite so hard against Paris Saint-Germain.

With the tie beautifully poised after a 2-2 draw in the first leg in France, things took a drastic turn in the return clash when Javier Pastore put the visitors ahead shortly after half-time. Groans and murmurs spread through the stands as Barca, looking flat and uninspired, stared down the barrel.

Then Lionel Messi came off the bench, and everything was fine and dandy.

The hosts looked a new side immediately after the little master's introduction - quick, creative and all kinds of dangerous. And though clearly unfit, it was Messi himself who weaved between PSG's defensive lines to combine with David Villa for Pedro's tie-clinching strike.

"Messi is the best player in the world and he changed the game just by being on the pitch," Villa told Canal Plus after the game.

An away-goals victory never looks convincing on paper, and even less so when it involves perhaps the most revered squad in history. And while nouveau-riche PSG deserve all credit for an excellent dig, the question remains: why did star-studded Barca need one man to bail them out?

The simply answer is that Messi is far and away the greatest player in the game today. Of course Tito Vilanova's side will feel his absence when he's unavailable - it would be ludicrous to expect anything else.

The issue is not whether Barca are better or worse without their Argentine talisman, but rather if they are in danger of becoming so reliant on his goals, assists and all-round brilliance that they can no longer achieve results in his absence.

At 25 years of age, Messi has amassed over 300 goals for his club in all competitions. Last season he scored 73 times in 60 games, and he is on track for a similarly gobsmacking tally this term.

To put things into perspective, in the 2010-11 Liga campaign the Rosario native scored 31 and assisted 18 (49 combined) of Barcelona's 95 goals - more than half. The following season he netted 50 and laid on another 14 (64 combined) out of 114 strikes. It's a hell of a contribution, no matter which way you look at it.

One area of contention is whether Messi should even be allowed the opportunities to rack up such silly numbers in the first place. He has played over 50 games in each of the past four seasons - an enormous workload even in the modern era, and that's not including 40-odd appearances for Argentina in that time.

There have been more than a few whispers to the effect that the Barca hierarchy seem more concerned with the No. 10's legacy in blue and red than the well-being of both the team and the player himself. Such suggestions were brought to the fore when Messi scored in a record 19th consecutive league game recently despite existing concerns about his fitness.

And so one wonders: how on earth would Barcelona cope if their little legend were to succumb to a serious injury? Nobody would dare deny the depth of quality on their books, but could the likes of even Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas really fill the void? No doubt they would figure it out eventually, but how long would it take - and how many results would be compromised - in the meantime?

The beauty of Messi is that he is both a beacon and a lightning rod - a focal point not only for his teammates, but also for the opposition. Many a defence has fallen to pieces trying to decide how to stop the diminutive maestro without letting Iniesta or Villa or Pedro off the leash.

For now, it's all academic - one can only wait and see whether Barcelona will be able to function without Messi, should they ever have to do so for any stretch of time. In the meantime the Blaugrana are cruising towards a 22nd Liga title, and should they march on to be crowned European champions for the third time in five years, you can bet little Leo will be right at the heart of it.

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