Column: Will Messi get to finish his masterpiece?

Art snobs must forgive the analogy, but when Lionel Messi

collapsed in pain and fear on the Camp Nou turf clutching the back

of his priceless left knee, it felt for a moment as though Leonardo

da Vinci had mangled his painting hand just as he was about to

apply the final brushstrokes to the Mona Lisa.

Imagine her unfinished, waiting forever for Leonardo to give her

that pursed, so famously enigmatic smile. Equally gruesome would be

if Messi falls just short of completing his own masterpiece – of

setting a new record for goals scored in a calendar year.

Messi has 84 for his club, Barcelona, and country, Argentina, in

2012, an otherworldly achievement but still not the record. That,

for the next few days or weeks at least, belongs to Gerd Mueller,

the Bayern Munich and Germany striker who was nicknamed ”Der

Bomber” with his stocky, power-lifter’s build and explosive shots

with both feet. In 1972, the same year he also lifted West Germany

to victory over the Soviet Union with two goals in the final of the

European Championship, Mueller scored 85 times in just 60 matches.

Astounding.

That the record has stood for 40 years, untouched by successive

generations of brilliant scorers such as Diego Maradona or Brazil’s

Ronaldo, is a measure of how special Mueller was and Messi is to

get so close to breaking that mark.

So it made total sense that Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova

brought on Messi for 30 minutes in the Champions League on

Wednesday night, even though he really didn’t need him.

With four wins in Group G, Barcelona could have lost this last

game against Benfica and still have comfortably gone through to the

knockout stage of the competition that begins in February.

As he did for Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and his other

first-choice players who watched from their seats, Vilanova could

have given Messi a rare night off, saved his most valuable star for

more vital encounters and avoided the unnecessary risk of injuring

him in a game of such little import that four of Barca’s starting

XI were B-team, not first team, players.

But Messi, football addict that he is, hates sitting games out.

And, although he’s only 25 and the best footballer of his

generation, perhaps any generation, even Messi cannot be sure he

will get this close again to Mueller’s mark.

So, of course, he had to come on. He owed it to his sport as

much as to himself. The buzz, cheers and applause from the Camp Nou

crowd when Messi slapped hands with Rafinha, the 19-year-old

B-teamer he replaced on 58 minutes, and ran onto the pitch, showed

how thrilled his fans were at the prospect of witnessing

Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer write yet another page of

football history.

The sickly hush and the way Vilanova chewed his thumbnail 28

minutes later told a story, too.

There are few grimmer sights in football than Messi being

gingerly helped onto a stretcher and carted away. Not just because

football would be poorer if it lost this treasure for any extended

period of time but also because there’s always that nagging concern

with Messi that he is only a bad tackle away from serious injury,

because of his slight build and because he’s so quick and skillful

that some lesser opponents have no other answer than to hack him

down.

Like Luisao. Messi had been on the pitch for just 49 seconds

when the Benfica captain and defender upended him, with one of

those calculated fouls cynical professional footballers are so

expert at, chopping legs and then trying to shaking hands. Referee

Svein Oddvar Moen from Norway knew better, whipping out a yellow

card for the Brazilian.

Barca captain Carles Puyol, always so protective of Messi, gave

Luisao a piece of his mind. But Messi, as is his wont, just picked

himself up without fuss. He needed growth hormones as a youngster

to get to the 5-foot-5 (169 centimeters) he is now. He’s generally

smaller than the players who clatter into him but he doesn’t give

them the satisfaction of knowing they’ve stung.

Which is why it immediately seemed serious when Messi didn’t get

up after coming together with Benfica’s goalkeeper, Artur, another

Brazilian. Messi, to his credit, generally doesn’t do the whole

rigmarole of rolling around in agony like other players, including

some of his teammates. So many feared the worst this time as he lay

on the ground, hiding his face with gloved hands.

Messi grimaced with the impact of running at speed into Artur

with the ball at his feet. He could have gone down right there.

Many other players would have. But Messi stayed upright, took a few

more steps, swiveled and shot at goal with his aching left leg

before collapsing in a heap. Even though he was hurting, he

couldn’t, wouldn’t, waste a chance to score, to match Muller’s

record. As it turned out, Artur saved Messi’s lob.

”I sincerely thought it was the last ball I would be touching

for a long time because of the pain. I tried to go ahead and shoot

but I didn’t have the strength,” Messi said.

Vilanova said he had no regrets and that it wasn’t the Barca way

to molly-coddle its superstar.

”He’s a player that likes to play,” he said. ”He’s not

focused on breaking the record that everyone is talking

about.”

”If I had a do-over I’d make the same decision, seeing that he

can get injured at any moment.”

The diagnosis for Messi was reassuring: bone bruising to the

outside of his left knee. Barca said he did gym work Thursday.

Messi had injuries earlier in his Barca career, notably left out of

the team that won the 2006 Champions League final, because of a

thigh injury. But more recently he has been remarkably durable –

one reason why he has moved so close to Mueller’s record. Barca

said Messi hasn’t missed a game with injury since Sept. 2010, when

Atletico Madrid defender Tomas Ujfalusi crunched his ankle in a

tackle, damaging ligaments.

Messi has four more games in 2012 to overtake Mueller – or less

if he doesn’t recover for Barca’s league trip Sunday night to

Betis.

”It is not an obsession. If it happens, it will happen when it

does,” Messi said Thursday. ”It would be nice to reach a record

that has been there for such a long time. But it is not something

that worries me. If I don’t make it, no problem, but I am very

close.”

He may never be closer.

Like Leonardo, he needs to put a smile on his Mona Lisa.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester