In­jury threat­ens Messi’s mas­ter­piece

Austin American-Statesman - - C SPORTS - Manu Fer­nan­dez / as­so­ci­ated PRESS

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 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” for 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 out games. 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, 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 do so well.

Messi gri­maced on im­pact of run­ning at speed into Ar­tur with the ball at his feet. 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.

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, and was notably left out of the team that won the 2006 Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal be­cause of a thigh in­jury.

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 would be nice to reach a record that has been there for such a long time. But it is not some­thing that wor­ries me,” Messi said. “If I don’t make it, no prob­lem, but I am very close.”

Lionel Messi writhes in pain af­ter suf­fer­ing an in­jury dur­ing a group G Cham­pi­ons League match against Benfica in Barcelona, Spain, on Wed­nes­day. Messi has just four more games to break Gerd Mueller’s scor­ing record.

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