Soccer

Lionel Messi's hamstring injury hurting Barcelona

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP)

Lionel Messi's hamstring injury has hurt more than just a muscle in the Argentine's right leg, and it's still smarting.

The Barcelona forward scored 60 goals in all competitions this season, enough to ensure the team wins the Spanish league title yet again. But with Messi struggling to recover from the injury he picked up in the Champions League quarterfinals in April, Barcelona was eliminated from that competition in the semifinals.

And last weekend, Messi re-aggravated the injury and is now likely to miss the last three games of the Spanish season.

''He's the No. 1, perhaps the best in history,'' Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said Tuesday before stating what seems to be the obvious. ''On many occasions, we depend on him.''

The 25-year-old Messi won his fourth straight player of the year award this season, and has scored an amazing 133 goals over the last two campaigns. But without the Argentine on the field, Barcelona is just not the same team that has won two of the last four Champions League titles.

Most teams would consider the Spanish league title a resounding triumph, but Messi and his Barcelona teammates expect more after winning 14 of a possible 19 trophies in recent years.

''We set the bar so high that now you win the league it's like you haven't won anything,'' Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said Wednesday. ''We had won so much and yet we still have to value (this title). There is a lot of pressure. If you don't win the Champions League it's like you haven't won anything.''

This ''Messi-dependence'' surely is a disease any other club in the world would love to contract. But with Messi hurt against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals, Barcelona could not find the sure scoring threat it needed.

It even seemed that Barcelona didn't believe it could win without him. And it didn't, losing 3-0 in the second leg after the 4-0 rout in the first.

Unless he returns for Barcelona's season finale against Malaga on the first weekend in June, Messi will end this season with a league-leading 46 goals - four short of his own record of 50 from last season. He also scored eight more in the Champions League, four in the Copa del Rey, and two in the Spanish Super Cup.

Last season, Messi scored 73 goals to break the previous European club record of 67 goals set by Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller in 1972-73. Even so, the Argentina star was reduced to tears when Barcelona somehow lost to Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals.

This year, Barcelona was obliterated by Bayern, and that historic 7-0 scoreline makes a big difference for a team which for the first time in five years won't start next season as the favorite in Europe's top-tier competition.

Not, that is, unless it makes some major changes to its aging squad.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova insists he will maintain the team's core and that its humbling Champions League exit won't change his plans for the offseason. Yet Barcelona has players that may not be physically able to execute the pressing defense that underlies its famed ball-control and passing game.

Captain Carles Puyol is 35 and Eric Abidal, whose contract is up in June, is 33 and only recently returned from a liver transplant. Fellow defenders Dani Alves will be 30 and Javier Mascherano 29 by the start of next season, while the injury-prone Adriano is 28. Midfielder Xavi Hernandez, the heart of Barcelona's passing attack, is 33, striker David Villa is 31, and midfielder Andres Iniesta recently turned 29.

''A season when you win the league is always a good one,'' Vilanova said, looking on the bright side before turning to the season's big disappointment. ''We regret not being able to compete better in the semifinals of the Champions League. Next season will be even more difficult, but we'll try to be there again.''



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