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.
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
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
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
”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
”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
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