Here we go.
Luis Enrique has a problem, best explained in a “this is you” hypothetical.
You have a job, and you’re part of a team that has been working on a big account. The team leader went on a two-month medical leave, and you step in. The team has some early clunks, then begins to work seamlessly.
Just before a crucial step in the account process, the team leader returns from medical leave, the day before a big meeting. The question: Does everyone step aside and say “Hey, welcome back! Here are the reins!”
Or does the manager have to weigh the situation, and possibly suggest that the team leader get up to speed first on what has been going on in his absence, and gradually assume the helm.
It’s the Messi question. The best player in the game is fit after a two-month bout with a knee injury, He hasn’t been passed match fit, but training video released by the club on Friday makes it clear that he will be. And what does Enrique do? It’s a challenge that so many coaches have to face. Complicating matters is that it’s Messi, a player that people struggle to be neutral about. If it was Pique, Rakitic or Iniesta returning from two months away, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would be clamoring for an immediate return to the XI.
Messi is superhuman. He defies mortal constraints, including those of match fitness. But no. He doesn’t. As Enrique said in his Friday presser, Messi is fit, but not 100% referring to match fitness, something that even the hardest training can’t prepare a player for. What usually happens after a long layoff is that a player comes in for a half-hour or so, possibly even a half, to return to the rhythm and the intensity of things. It makes the most physical sense.
Further complicating matters is that Barça has been playing some excellent football, looking like a team hitting its stride. It has come into shape in those two Messi-less months in a way that is, from this seat, surprising. Everyone says the team has world-class players, but it’s a psychological stretch to imagine that the team would come into focus without its best player, yet that is what has happened.
Some call it compensation, but it hasn’t been that. It has rather been a different way of playing that shifts the focus from Messi to Neymar, allowing for a different kind of creativity. But a part of that has been Busquets, becoming even more of a monster, and a team that understands how to play as a team again, that any action has to start with you, not somebody else. There is a problem. Fix it.
This team wouldn’t give up that long goal that Athletic scored in the SuperCopa, because if midfield possession was lost, the man with the ball would be closed down. It’s why the clean sheets are coming hand over fist, and why the club has assumed its (these days) natural position at the top of the table. It’s world-class players, performing like world-class players even without the best player of them all.
So the Messi supposition isn’t against chemistry, or ability, or status. It’s answering the question posed at the beginning, one to which everyone will have their own answer. But the question is worth an ask, even as the subject of it, Messi, will make a lot of people have an instant reaction: Of course he starts. How dare anyone even suggest that he doesn’t?
I wonder what Enrique will think.
RM is a lot like Barça was last year, going into a home Classic. Coach questions, talk of player revolt and a team that isn’t playing “properly.” And Barça won that match, so be warned, and wary of a team with something to prove, playing at home. RM presents a number of challenges, options that make you hope Flo Flo is on the SMS to Benitez, demanding that he go Bale/Benzema/Ronaldo, because that would make the lives of the Barça defense quite a bit easier.
If Benitez is his own man, things could get complicated. Bale and Ronaldo do the same thing on opposite sides of the pitch: they run at the defense, relying on pace and physicality, coupled with a powerful shot. There won’t be a lot of interplay or intricate playmaking. Replace Bale with James Rodriguez, and things get a lot more complicated for Barça. Toss Isco into the mix and the complications multiply.
RM is a potent team that is, in many ways, limited by its superstar default front line. As Barça lines up to combat that line, its defenders will appreciate how easy it is to corral Bale into a corridor then close off the exits. That said, who starts for RM shouldn’t matter a whit to the Barça XI. Here’s an ideal, from where I sit:
Sergi Roberto PIque Vermaelen Alba
Munir Suarez Neymar
If Messi had been able to get a couple of matches, even one, before the Classic, starting him would be a no-brainer. Enrique is right about match fitness, and RM are going to be rolling at about a million miles an hour to start a match in which the first 20 minutes will most likely be the most dangerous for Barca. It’s a time where match fitness will be at a premium.
That said, Messi would sure as hell be the first sub, at halftime or shortly thereafter, once things have returned to something approaching normal, while also getting him about the right amount of time a player returning from an 8-week knee injury would usually get. It will be easier to sub him on than sub him off.
Ter Stegen’s aggression, for me, adds an extra CB, which will be of value if Benzema is at full fitness, as reports suggest that he is. Vermaelen, his length and mobility and well as sureness of intervention is an argument for his appearance. Sergi Roberto is, on form, the best RB right now. His inclusion also means that Rakitic won’t have to babysit Alves. Add the work rate of Munir, and it’s an XI that is very strong defensively.
It’s also an XI that will never happen. Most likely:
Alves Pique Mascherano Alba
Messi Suarez Neymar
The best player in the game is back. Why wouldn’t you start him, you big dummy? Rakitic is an easier call because he’s only been out a couple of weeks, rather than months. Bravo is the Liga keeper and Mascherano is the stalwart, a Captain-like presence in the back line. He also makes opposing attackers nervous in the same way Pepe does, because he is uninterested in taking prisoners, or giving a damn.
Alves will start because he is the incumbent right back, and he has a special interplay with Messi that Sergi Roberto doesn’t. It all makes perfect sense.
Here’s a wild-card XI:
Alves Pique Mathieu Alba
Sergi Roberto Iniesta
Sandro Suarez Neymar
With Sandro you get almost the same work rate as Munir, along with a player who has an excellent shot. If Navas isn’t match fit, getting shots on goal will be important for Barça. Sergi Roberto starts because Rakitic isn’t at full speed yet and like Messi, Enrique will want to sub him in at the half, or just after.
Mathieu’s recent form has been excellent, and his pace and ability to close down as a consequence of that pace make him a strong argument against an opponent that attacks at speed, as RM will do.
Sergio Ramos, their defensive reference and Captain will be starting, even if for a normal match he almost certainly wouldn’t. Yes it’s only a shoulder, but running full speed, diving and playing with the abandon that will be necessary to keep Barça from winning will be a complex task for Ramos. Don’t be surprised if he gets some special attention from Suarez.
Neymar will be interesting to watch, and despite what he says in the press, he will also be watching to see if Enrique starts Messi, something that will further complicate Enrique’s selection. Neymar has done exactly what everyone said he needed to do, and more. He has led the team, temporarily his team, to the top of the table with a three-point gap. Now does Enrique say “Nice job, man. Now step aside?”
Obviously, Messi is the best player alive, and he’s back. Everyone can and should understand why he slots immediately back into the XI. But logic doesn’t always walk hand-in-hand with ego, and Neymar definitely has an ego. Every top player does. Barça won’t be able to keep playing as it has been. because Messi changes everything. The challenge will be how close the team can come to that, without getting mentally lazy and saying, “No. 10 is back. Pass it to him.”
Messi will also need to, if he starts, rein in that tendency that every athlete has to Make A Difference. He will be amped up, ready to about a million miles an hour. Watching as the team rediscovers its balance will be fascinating. Messi being back will change the team’s mindset. The group is, mentally, back at full strength even if Messi doesn’t start because having a player who can do what he does reassures in a way that few things can. If he starts, Messi is there. If he’s on the bench, Messi is coming. Either say, a very different set of psychological possibilities exist for Barça, as well as for RM.
This is a very hard match to predict, because of the post-international factors. Enrique always has his teams ready to go after internationals, but complicating things is having two key XI members just coming back from injury.
But Benitez has the same problems in Rodriguez and Benzema.