Messi ruled out for weeks

Argentinian set to miss crucial matches as Barcelona keep up the chase on Real Madrid

BARCELONA • Perhaps a minute elapsed between Lionel Messi's trudging off the field as he dejectedly clutched his left thigh and Angel Correa's joyously clenching his fist as he celebrated the goal that gave Atletico Madrid a point at Barcelona on Wednesday.

Those 60 seconds may prove the most significant of the entire Spanish Primera Liga season.

Before that minute, Barcelona were cruising.

Real Madrid, the league leaders, had been held to a 1-1 draw by Villarreal earlier that day.

Victory against Atletico would have taken Barcelona to within a point of their rivals at the summit, with the momentum swinging very much in their favour.

COPING WITH A BIG LOSS

To lose Lionel Messi means football loses and we lose... Now we have to look for other solutions. With Leo we are much stronger, but without him we are still a strong team.

LUIS ENRIQUE, Barcelona manager, on Lionel Messi's injury absence.

But, after that minute, everything felt different. Atletico and Barcelona drew 1-1 - after Ivan Rakitic had headed Barca into the lead just before half-time - which meant that Real, their mistake unpunished, had won.

Now Barcelona remain three points back and will be without Messi for at least three weeks because of a groin strain.

An absence of that length will be bearable. If it stretches any longer - a few weeks, a few months - Catalan nerves will start to fray, even with Neymar, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta around.

That is not simply because without Messi, Barcelona is just a little less formidable.

There is another factor, too, that made those 60 seconds between his injury and Correa's goal seem so seismic.

The standings at the top of the Primera Liga, more than any other elite league in Europe, depend on the finest of margins.

"To lose Lionel Messi means football loses and we lose," said Barca manager Luis Enrique.

The Argentina captain is set to miss his country's World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Paraguay next month as well as Barca's Champions League clash at Borussia Monchengladbach.

Messi will also sit out the Catalan side's trips to Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo in the league.

However, the five-time World Player of the Year should be fit in time for a reunion with old manager Pep Guardiola when Manchester City visit the Nou Camp on Champions League duty on Oct 19.

"Now we have to look for other solutions," said Enrique. "With Leo we are much stronger, but without him we are still a strong team."

Barca coped remarkably well with eight wins from 10 games when Messi was sidelined by a hamstring injury for two months last season.

And Enrique hopes his side can show similar resilience to avoid slipping further behind Real in the title race.

"Last year we had an unfortunate situation with a longer-term injury and my team played well," said the manager.

But on Wednesday, Atletico marshalled Suarez and Neymar well in Messi's absence to hold out for a point and other teams could follow that strategy.

Suarez, though, insisted he and the Brazilian can step up as they did without Messi last season.

"It is a difficult injury that hurts and leaves you sad," said the Uruguayan.

"Now we have to take responsibility."

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2016, with the headline 'Messi ruled out for weeks'. Print Edition | Subscribe