After four years, during which time Lionel Messi reached levels of consistent performance never seen before in football, at least not for such a long stretch – racking up four consecutive Ballon d’Ors in the process – 2013 has been quite an injury-plagued year for the Argentine. It all started at the Parc des Princes in the Champions League quarter finals and it hasn’t got any better since, with the latest injury – which will likely sideline Messi until 2014 – being the fourth he has sustained this calendar year, counting all muscle injuries. Messi himself has admitted that he rushed his way back previously, a mistake he should avoid repeating; making a full recovery is essential, no matter how long it takes. Not only will Barcelona need Messi for the late stages of La Liga and especially the Champions League, but at the end of the season the FIFA World Cup will be hosted in Brazil, a competition where Messi no doubt aims to peak and lead Argentina to victory.
Injury problems are not exactly news for Messi, he used to be injured very often before Guardiola took over and put a new fitness plan specifically for him in motion – which has evidently worked wonders, leading Messi to play at a quite unbelievable level for 4 years in a row with barely any injury (or fatigue) problems at all; from potentially having his career derailed by injuries Messi became arguably the most durable player in the game, until a few months ago. Whatever the cause, he’s now been getting injured with alarming regularity. Suffice to say it needs to be identified as soon as possible and solved, as 2014 might well be a defining year for Messi in a lot of ways. It is no secret that conquering the World Cup is pretty much the only thing left in Messi’s resumé, something he’s certainly quite eager to correct. There’s also a chance that he might finally lose the Ballon d’Or this year after 4 years of unrivaled dominance, which would certainly motivate him to win it back again in 2014. That said, even despite the constant injuries, Messi still scored 45 goals in the 2013 calendar year and is one of the main candidates to the Ballon d’Or; no one would really be surprised if they saw him lifting the trophy for the fifth year in a row, although this year Cristiano Ronaldo and even Franck Ribéry have emerged as legitimate candidates as well and are currently favored by bookies to win it.
As Barcelona have shown already this season, even without Messi they’re still too strong for most lower teams in La Liga and even in Europe: Alexis Sanchez, Neymar, Pedro and co. make for a very strong attacking lineup, more than enough firepower to keep winning in the league week after week. Crunch Champions League knockouts though are a totally different story and Barcelona absolutely need Messi if they are to have any chance to get the Champions League trophy back. His absence was very strongly felt in the semifinal tie against Bayern last year. It is precisely because they are aware of his importance to the club’s success that Barcelona and Messi himself have decided to give him more time to fully recover this time and not let him rush back into action despite his well-documented desire to play as often as possible. No risks can be taken with a player as valuable as Messi is.
When he gets back to the pitch in 2014, Messi will need to be fully fit and ready for what can be a huge year in his career… or a big disappointment. Both Barcelona and Argentina will need Messi at full flow if they are to have any chances of attaining their objectives. There was a time during Guardiola and even Villanova’s reigns where it felt like the team didn’t really function without Messi, but those days are long gone with Barcelona showing the ability to remain competitive even without Messi this season so far, to a point of course. This allows the Argentine to take all the time he needs to get back to full fitness while his teammates take care of business on the pitch against the bulk of Spanish and European sides. It might actually give players like Alexis Sanchez and especially Neymar a chance to start leaving their mark at the club without Messi’s huge shadow around; no matter how good you are, it’s quite tough to shine as a Barcelona forward with Messi inevitably stealing the show time and again (see Villa or Ibrahimovic during their stints at the club).
No player is as valuable to his club as Messi is to Barcelona; the Catalans have gone to unthinkable lengths to sign, hone and preserve their crown jewel over the years, and they will continue to do so. The longer Messi lasts at the highest level, the more likely Barcelona are to remain as one of the very best teams in the world year after year. The Argentine supernova has at times looked extraterrestrial from 2008 to 2012 but the truth is he’s human and all those years performing at the very top level with hardly any breaks at toll have taken their toll; it’s time to rest up, fully heal his injuries and then focus on what could very well be a career defining year for him depending on what happens in Brazil in the summer.