It would have been no surprise if Barcelona wilted.
Given the fragility of their defence in recent weeks and the nine points dropped from the last 12 available, Lionel Messi’s first-half injury was the last thing the team needed. Especially at the start of a run of three matches which could define their season.
But instead of letting their heads drop, Ernesto Valverde’s men arrested a run of four league games without a win to romp to a 4-2 triumph against Sevilla on Saturday night at Camp Nou..
Messi writhed in agony on the pristine surface, having damaged his right arm. Barcelona limped on for a few minutes with 10 men before doctor Daniel Florit made the signal and Ousmane Dembele came on to replace him.
It was Florit’s first match with the Barcelona first team, having transferred over from the club’s basketball section – what a way to begin.
Barcelona were 2-0 up at the time, the first goal created by Messi for Philippe Coutinho and the second curled home by the Argentine maestro, and against opponents as potent as Sevilla, the stage was set for the champions to collapse.
It has been a gripping Liga season, with any team capable of beating any other, as Barcelona and Madrid have found out. Sevilla, who sat top of the table until Friday night when Alaves overtook them, had a taste and wanted more.
But Barcelona sit top, after they pulled their socks up and swept past Sevilla to the delight of a nervous Camp Nou, who did not know how the team would respond to Messi’s injury.
For the most part it was a clever, cool reaction, and with the No 10 ruled out for the Champions League clash with Inter Milan on Wednesday and Sunday’s Clasico against Real Madrid, they must find this performance again.
Messi is so crucial to the Valverde system, perhaps more crucial than he has been in any other Barcelona side he has played in, that without him it could have fallen to pieces.
Luis Suarez was one of the players who refused to let that happen. The Uruguayan, who worked with physiotherapists during the international break on a long-running knee problem, produced his best performance of the season to drive Barcelona on.
Fighting and scrapping with his usual vigour, Suarez never let Sevilla get on the front foot, keeping Barcelona pressing high in attack.
It was his determined run onto a through ball that forced Sevilla goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik to bring him down, and Suarez drove home the penalty to put Barcelona three goals up.
The defence collapsed at the end, letting in two goals which will frustrate Valverde, but for well over an hour, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet showed their partnership can work.
Perhaps the goals netted by Pablo Sarabia and Luis Muriel can be chalked up to minds drifting towards the challenges ahead.
Because Messi or no Messi, this is the most important week of Barcelona’s season so far and one which could have a big impact on how the rest of it unfolds.
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