There are moments when time stops.
You always hear about such moments. People who experience them always talk about the odd feeling of time just stopping, and rarely for a good reason. When Lionel Messi was laying on the pitch in agony, moments after being knocked down by a Sevilla defender in an action that wasn’t malicious but nonetheless was unnecessary and damaging, time stopped.
Following the match on Twitter is an anomaly because of the various feeds that people have, chronological inconsistencies that can result in goals being talked about as if they had just happened, for minutes. So when the first, “Oh, no. Messi.” Hit timelines, it gave everyone the chance, at least a minute, to hope this was just another foul.
On the BeIN Sports feed while watching the replay, veteran announcer Phil Schoen uttered an exclamation that let you know, even before your own replay hit, that this wasn’t one of those, “He’s getting right up” moments. And you held your breath. Time stopped. And you realize that the reason cliches are thus are because of their foundation in reality.
Messi laid there for a long time, too long for it to be something that would see him continue the match. On the sidelines they wrapped his elbow — the part that made everyone breathe a sigh of relief that those priceless legs weren’t damaged. But it was clear from the pain he was in that he wasn’t going to be able to continue.
The match against Sevilla was the first after the international break, hence one that people pointed to with trepidation because of the fact that breaks spell doom and Sevilla was top of Liga, even if plucky Alaves was just keeping the spot warm. Barça would play poorly, would follow in the footsteps of the other parts of the big three, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, who lost and drew, respectively, to Levante and Villarreal.
But Barça wasn’t interested in superstition. They cane out flying, pinging the ball around, running, passing, darting with Arthur the calm in the eye of the hurricane. And it wasn’t long before a quicksilver sequence of passes resulted in Coutinho blasting the first goal into the roof of the Sevilla nets. Was it going to be one of those days?
And suddenly it was two as midfield pressure forced the ball loose and an exquisite pass from Luis Suarez found Messi in space. The Argentine exploded into life and from the first strides he took, there wasn’t much doubt that a goal would result, and so it did. 2-0, and that was that.
Then came the moment when time stopped, and what began life as a home romp, as Barça set out to show exactly how good the team was, became two matches, pre and post injury. In many ways this match was similar to the Roma away match in which Rafinha was injured, leaving shaken teammates in the wake of the incident. They played differently as a consequence, leading to a second half that felt and looked weird, like everyone was just going through the motions. It even took Sevilla a while to figure out what to do without the Assassin on the pitch.
Valverde subbed in Dembele, who was rank, to be clear. This was a moment when he could have roared onto the pitch, seized control of a moment and made a name for himself. Instead he drew whistles as he lost ball after ball, including one that led directly to a Sevilla goal. He didn’t play with fire or desire, greeting proceedings with a Gallic shrug rather than with the mood of a fighter. He would make a pass, then not make a supporting run for the outlet when the ball came back. He tracked back with disinterest, leading to many moments when with his pace, his intervention could have helped his club. Instead he buzzed around the periphery of proceedings when Sevilla had the ball. He had one good run, a couple of nice passes and the rest was a perfect argument for why Didier Deschamps and Valverde are both leaving him out of starting XIs.
In the post-match press conference, Valverde said, “Sometimes, players offer good performances and sometimes not. Today, Dembele has not participated well from the beginning of the game, but we still rely on him. … We expect much from him, because he has ability to improve a lot.”
All the talent in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have the head, if you don’t want it. Talent — Dembele has tons of it — only gets you so far. The rest is the kind of hunger that you saw in Luis Suarez, who ran, worked, hustled on both ends of the pitch and had an excellent match, including earning then converting a penalty. When Messi went out he played like a classic 9 rather than a foil, and grew into significance even as Dembele shrank.
There are moments that define a season, and a player’s trajectory at a club. Dembele didn’t do a lot to help his. As Arturo Vidal sat at the back of the bench, shrouded in shadows and pouting over not getting match time, he didn’t either. Don’t be shocked if he is moved on in January. Coutinho did a disappearing act almost from the moment Messi went out, and despite a golazo, Rakitic was poor. But man, was there good news.
Semedo continues working to make the RB slot his, starting in that role even though Sergi Roberto had been passed fit right before the match. Pique is back and was omnipresent, reading the match brilliantly, using positioning and his height to control the space in and around his area of influence. His back line mate, Clement Lenglet, made it very clear why the club paid his clause to nab him from Sevilla. Pacey and secure in possession, Lenglet is fitting into the club quite nicely, even as you can see that he still has some improving to do before staking his claim to a legit spot contenting for Valverde’s XI.
Alba was magisterial, growing in influence after Messi went out, reining in his atatcking side to keep things held down at the back and last but not least, Ter Stegen, my MOTM, was stupendous. Yes he let in two goals. One was a deflection off his CB, the other came from slack marking that left him dead in the water. But he had a pair of double saves today that saved the match for his team.
The first involved a clawing, stretching dive then immediately leaping back to his feet to parry the second shot. The other was a sidelong dive, after which he again immedidately was back up to bat away the next shot. Both sequences mattered. After keeping it from going to 2-1, Barça made it 3-0. Then after keeping it from going to 3-2, Barça made it 4-1. His contributions to the result cannot be overstated.
But it really felt like none of the stuff that happened after Messi went out mattered. Everybody waited and watched, Twitter and favorite news sources, for word. Messi went to the club training center, then the hospital. Sprain, dislocations, hyperextensions, all kinds of stuff was out there before official word came down of a fracture, and three weeks out.
Three weeks. Six matches, the two most dangerous coming back-to-back with Inter and a clash for top of table supremacy in the Champions League group, and the the Classic. Both will be without the club’s talisman and captain, and it will be weird. The last time Messi was out, Neymar and Suarez grew in stature to carry the team until its leader could return. This time out, it’s hard to see right now what will happen, but Dembele will have an opportunity. He can make the most of it, or throw it away. If he does the latter, it will be difficult to see him finishing the summer transfer window at Barça. But hey. No pressure.
Meanwhile, after time has resumed its motion, life must go on. Playing, working and training without a player is different than having him yanked away during a match, so there is that consolation. The sleepwalking stunned bodies that moved around, going through the motions in the second half will be mentally prepared, more resolved, and ready. The result of all that remains to be seen.