BARCELONA — Even in his absence, Lionel Messi was the centre of attention on Wednesday. The cameras panned to him, wearing a baseball cap and sitting next to the eldest of his three sons inside Camp Nou, before Barcelona’s Champions League game against Inter Milan and the chanting started. “Messsssi, Messsssi.”
How would Barca cope without him?
Just fine, as it turned out.
The message from Barca had been that you cannot replace the irreplaceable. Ernesto Valverde and Jordi Alba stressed before the game that there is no substitute for Messi. Instead, the rallying cry was for the whole team to step up during the forward’s three-week layoff due to a fractured bone in his arm. “Eleven Messis” was the call on the cover of newspaper Diario Sport.
Valverde brought in Rafinha for Messi but, while the midfielder provided the opening goal in a 2-0 win, he was not a direct replacement. The Barca coach was bulking up his midfield, seeking the control associated with the Catalan side. And in Arthur, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, he found it. They were supported by Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and Philippe Coutinho, who themselves could have been the midfield three on another night.
Arthur, in particular, was sensational. Again. The 22-year-old, taken off with a slight knock in the second half, was given a standing ovation by the home supporters. It’s hard to believe he’s not come straight out of the club’s La Masia academy.
Despite not scoring, Luis Suarez’s performance also deserved credit. As against Sevilla on Saturday, when Messi went off, he took responsibility. The striker held everything up, won free kick after free kick and bullied Miranda. His pass for Rafinha’s opener was inch perfect, his overall passing perhaps even underrated. The only thing missing from his display was a goal.
Above all, though, this was a victory for Valverde. He tweaked the tactics and found the answer to the question of how to cope without Messi, although the questions show no signs of slowing down. Next up: Does he stick with the same formula for Sunday’s Clasico against Real Madrid?
Logic suggests yes. Barca enjoyed full control against a disappointing Inter side and it’s hard to imagine Valverde veering too much from that blueprint. The personnel could change but the shape may not. Why change what worked? Especially against a Madrid team that arrive in “crisis” on the back of one win in their last six games.
However, despite Valverde’s success with a more conservative, midfield-focused approach — Barca’s domestic double last season was built on a 4-4-2 formation — it’s often been criticised. Even against Inter, there were complaints that Ousmane Dembele and Malcom were not given a chance to fill in for Messi. “Entertain us more” seems to be the basic sum of the argument against a more balanced side.
But results support Valverde’s decisions. Dembele started the season well but Barca have begun to look better since his place was taken by Arthur and Coutinho was pushed forward. As for Malcom, the summer signing has played just 25 minutes of football this campaign since joining from Bordeaux. Valverde made it clear he was “the club’s signing” and it’s difficult to see what role he will have to play this season if Dembele is not even in the team. Valverde insists that both will get chances, but his answers on the matter do not convince at the moment.
The worrying thing for Barca is that they have two players worth almost €200 million who sat on the bench. And the worrying thing for the two forwards, who are both 21, is that they can’t even get a game when Messi’s genius is sidelined. Neither even left the dugout to warm up against Inter.
Can they provide the solutions to a Messi-less future in the long-term if they’re not trusted to do it in the short-term?
Luckily for Valverde, he’s unlikely to be the man who oversees Messi’s retirement. Things may have gone well against Inter and things may go well for the next three Messi-less weeks, but the coach knows his side are stronger with the Argentine.
“We responded well without Messi,” Valverde said in his postgame news conference. “There was a lot of expectation to see how we dealt without him. It was something which was on everyone’s mind and you felt it in the atmosphere, but we responded well.
“We always play as a team and we have a recognisable style, but it’s true that Messi adds that touch of the extraordinary. If he’s not there, we have to replace him. We got it right in terms of today, but, hopefully, he’s back soon. We all missed him.”
Jordi Alba added the second goal on the night but it was still Messi’s name on everyone’s lips as Barca moved to within touching distance of the Champions League knockout rounds. Camp Nou, just as it started the game, ended it singing his name.