By Richard Martin
Sometimes, just knowing Lionel Messi is nearby is enough to turn a game.
It happened in the 2013 Champions League quarterfinal second leg between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. With the French champions 1-0 up and a lifeless Barca staring elimination in the face, Messi — unable to start due to a hamstring injury — was thrown on. Just the sight of him on the touchline galvanised the Camp Nou, and although he could barely move, the PSG players were suddenly shaken by his presence.
He drew three players to him and then danced around two more before picking out David Villa, which in turn led to Pedro banging in the equaliser that sent Barca through. Gary Neville called Messi’s influence that night “spiritual.”
Barca defender Gerard Pique summed it up on the eve of Manchester City’s visit in the Champions League, declaring: “I think Messi is the best in the world, no doubt, and he gives us a lot no matter whether he’s 100 percent or 10 percent because he’s so different and so good. Just his presence on the pitch has an effect on us, and maybe the other team.”
After Messi ran riot en route to a hat trick in the win against City, Luis Enrique — with a cheeky grin on his face — claimed it had all began because the opposition were frightened by his very presence.
The 4-0 scoreline and embarrassing mistakes by Claudio Bravo and Ilkay Gundogan may make it seem anecdotal now, but Barca were nullified in the opening quarter of an hour by an aggressive and ambitious City emboldened by returning coach Pep Guardiola.
Messi was strolling around in his first start in a month following a groin injury, doing little to stem City’s domination. Then, he received the ball from Luis Suarez and set off as only he knows how, marauding toward goal and picking out Andres Iniesta on the right before heading for the box.
Iniesta’s flick was stylish but weak and begging to be cleared by Fernandinho. But, upon noticing who was behind him, the Brazilian’s legs suddenly vanished beneath him.
“He even made them nervous when they gifted him the first goal!” said Luis Enrique. Even though the coach was joking, there was plenty of truth to his statement.
Barca were fortunate that the international break meant Messi’s injury only deprived them of their star man for three games — three and one third if you count the 31 minutes he missed after going off injured in the 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid.
Perhaps we should: Barca were 1-0 up when he left the pitch. Two minutes later, Atletico levelled and Diego Simeone’s side contained Barca for the remainder of the game, knowing Messi could no longer haunt them.
Luis Enrique’s side may have eased to a 5-0 win over Sporting Gijon, but they really struggled at Borussia Monchengladbach despite winning 2-1. It was not until Barca were beaten 4-3 at Celta Vigo, however, that the impact of Messi’s absence was truly brought home.
Celta’s high press provoked chaos and Barca, robbed of the serenity Messi’s presence brings, could not cope. When they finally regained their composure in the second half, they missed the psychological advantage of having him in the lineup and just fell short of pulling off a comeback.
Luis Enrique is fortunate to count on a formidable squad that often, if not always, compensates for Messi’s absence. Last season, for example, they won seven out of eight games when he was nursing a knee injury. But the best way to demonstrate what life is like without Messi is to take a look at Argentina.
The Albiceleste have three wins out of three in the World Cup qualifiers their captain has played, but have managed just one win in the seven games he has missed. Argentina’s reliance on Messi explains why new coach Edgardo Bauza demanded he join up with the team for their qualifier with Uruguay even after sustaining an injury in Barca’s 1-0 win at Athletic Bilbao.
Messi scored the only goal of a 1-0 win and was allowed to return home early and miss the qualifier with Venezuela, which ended 2-2. His most recent injury problems ruled him out of their latest qualifiers, a 2-2 draw at Peru and a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Paraguay.
Last week, the always eloquent Pique gave a stark warning to Barca, and the football world in general, about the impact Messi’s eventual departure will have.
“There will come a day when he retires or leaves and on that day it will feel like we’ve been stripped naked,” said Pique.
All football fans, perhaps even those who support Real Madrid, will hope that day is still far away, and that we can continue to marvel at Messi’s influence, whether he is rampaging past the opposition or frightening them just by lurking nearby.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC.