Barca need a shot in the arm

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde may count on Ousmane Dembele to stand in for Lionel Messi against Inter Milan in their Champions League clash today. Both teams are joint top of Group B after winning their first two games.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde may count on Ousmane Dembele to stand in for Lionel Messi against Inter Milan in their Champions League clash today. Both teams are joint top of Group B after winning their first two games.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Alba urges team to step up as they face Inter, Real without injured star Messi

BARCELONA • Barcelona's lowest ebbs are invariably followed by questions about Lionel Messi, but the issue of over-reliance may become clearer in the coming weeks.

The sight of Messi on the ground, grasping his right arm, during the 4-2 LaLiga win over Sevilla on Saturday prompted reactions inside the Nou Camp normally reserved when the home side concede goals.

There were hands behind heads and fingers over mouths, and the concern became real shortly after the final whistle when the club confirmed that the Argentinian talisman had fractured his radial bone.

His three-week absence leaves Barcelona vulnerable when they need him most, for a run of fixtures that includes Inter Milan in the Champions League today, the Clasico against Real Madrid on Sunday, before a return match against Inter in Italy early next month.

And teammate Jordi Alba admitted at a pre-match press conference yesterday that it was "a big loss" to face Inter without their captain, but urged the team to step up.

"We all play better with him on the field. We'll have to bring out our best and we're quite capable of doing that," the defender said.

Barcelona have grown used to accusations of dependence, not least when results have taken a turn for the worse.

When coach Ernesto Valverde left Messi on the bench for the 1-1 draw at home to Athletic Bilbao last month, the argument was given added weight when he came on and made the assist for their equaliser.

The same point was raised last season, when Messi, as a substitute, inspired a late fightback from two goals down against Sevilla.

He played the entirety of their Champions League collapse against Roma but then, the criticism was that Valverde's men had failed to find the answer when Messi had not provided it.

There is no team in the world that would not look worse with Messi extracted and as Real are proving in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, not only are a superstar's goals difficult to replace but so too is the aura.

To maintain a resurgence built on the latest wins over Tottenham and Sevilla, as well as a draw away to Valencia, Valverde will have to find an internal solution.

On Monday, Spanish daily Marca listed six options to replace Messi in a "casting for replacements" article - Ousmane Dembele, Rafinha, Munir El Haddadi, Malcom, Carles Alena and Sergi Roberto.

Not that Inter will care as Barca's loss is their gain, with the Italian Serie A club level on points with the Spanish side in Group B, having also beaten PSV Eindhoven and Spurs.

Second place might have been the limit of Inter's ambitions when the draw was made but with Messi, and defenders Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen all missing through injury, they are spying the opportunity to capitalise.

"It is a pity," said captain Mauro Icardi ahead of his side's trip to Spain. "And a big blow for them.

"Messi is a big miss and it means we can go head to head because we have the qualities needed to take them on."

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BARCELONA V INTER MILAN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2018, with the headline 'Barca need a shot in the arm'. Print Edition | Subscribe