The Camp Nou was far from full in a match that meant nothing to Barcelona, but turned out to be quite costly. Tito Vilanova didn’t start Lionel Messi, which was understandable considering the first place in the group was already a certainty. For some reason, he threw his biggest star into a meaningless match, and paid for it with a minor scare.
Not to worry, Barcelona fans. Messi is only suffering from a bruised left knee, which means he is in doubt for the difficult away trip to Sevilla against Real Betis this Sunday, but it’s nothing serious. Barcelona don’t have to start thinking about how they’re going to cope without him, and his chances to break Gerd Muller’s record are still very much alive. That shouldn’t be the most important thing to Barcelona, but it’s probably important to Messi, at least on some level.
For a moment, it seemed like everyone left the Camp Nou, or the air was completely sucked out of the stadium. Tito Vilanova and those next to him were left biting their nails, holding their breaths, as they watched their crown jewel go down and not get up, wheeled away from the pitch, leaving the team with 10 men, fighting to keep Benfica away from their goal. It is as if they were so impressed with Celtic and their fans, they were willing to give their all in defending, forgetting about some sort of Iberian partnership, and helping the Scottish champions make it into the knockout stage.
Artur denied Messi that 85th goal by putting his body on the line, scraping Messi’s left knee just a bit. The Argentinian stumbled but still tried to get up and make something out of the situation. He released a kick, and crumbled to the ground. In hindsight, he probably should have tried to pass to Gerard Deulofeu, who was the second most impressive player for Barcelona on the night, also coming off the bench. In hindsight, Tito Vilanova did the right thing by benching Messi, and probably got too caught up in the fact that his team was being outplayed by Benfica and the crowd calling for Lionel Messi.
Some matches you can let go; this was one of them. Vilanova insists that Messi entering (and changing the match completely) after 58 minutes was part of some fitness plan, but unless you see an actual page showing direction as to how much and when to play him, it all sounds like covering up a mistake. If Messi would have scored and gotten away cleanly, no one would have said anything. Results matter, not the purpose and thought process along the way unfortunately.
Anything else that was to be achieved in the match shrunk in comparison to Messi’s scare, but probably having Pique and Puyol play together and not concede was a good sign. Thiago is showing once again that the decision to bring Cesc Fabregas was the right one; the young midfielder is failing to show, time after time, that he deserves to be in the competition for a spot in the midfield, looking slow and confused every time he has the chance to do something meaningful.
Even in a 0-0 draw, Messi is the only name that is on everyone’s lips, this time for an injury scare. Next time, let him sit the entire 90 minutes. Breaking Muller’s record is phenomenal, but winning the La Liga and the Champions League is a tad more important.