By Jack Rathborn
How do you replace the world’s best player for two months? How do you come up with a plan to cover for one of the finest players to ever grace the game?
That is the challenge facing Luis Enrique, who must find a medium-term solution to the absence of Lionel Messi, ruled out for up to eight weeks with a knee injury sustained against Las Palmas on Saturday.
Lucho described Messi as “irreplaceable” on Monday, but admitted the “big challenge” of filling the right side of the Blaugrana’s attack is one that is dominating his thoughts.
Two possible solutions are non-starters. Summer signing Arda Turan is ineligible until January, due to the terms of the club’s transfer ban, while another possible replacement, Rafinha Alcantara, is sidelined with a knee injury.
Having sold Pedro Rodriguez to Chelsea late in the transfer window, an already thin squad has become further stretched.
Nonetheless, Enrique has some options at his disposal, as he steps up preparations for Tuesday’s Champions League clash against Bayer Leverkusen.
Football Insider runs the rule over four best options available to Barcelona:
Munir El Haddadi
Munir was Messi’s replacement against Las Palmas, so it stands to reason that he will be a strong candidate to replace the Argentine during his absence.
After graduating from La Masia at the beginning of last season, he was fast-tracked to the Spain senior team but failed to maintain the momentum and eventually slid back down to the ‘B’ team.
A beneficiary of Enrique’s thin squad, he now has an opportunity to further establish himself at this level and prove he was not a flash in the pan.
Another graduate from La Masia hoping to prosper in Messi’s absence, Sandro could well have been the Argentine’s replacement against Las Palmas, had it not been for a knock suffered days earlier against Celta Vigo.
The 20-year-old is probably better suited to the left wing, where he has the option to cut inside on his favoured right foot a la Neymar.
Alves could be paired on the right flank with Sergi Roberto, who deputised impressively for the attack-minded Brazilian during his recent absence with a groin injury.
Alves has also played in this advanced role for the Seleçao before, and was once used on the right wing by Pep Guardiola in a Clasico, although it is not entirely well suited to him as it negates his strength of of carrying the ball from deep.
Andres Iniesta or Ivan Rakitic
Another option for Enrique would be to push centre-back Javier Mascherano up into midfield alongside Sergio Busquets, and utilise Iniesta or Rakitic a more advanced role.
Iniesta was frequently used on the left side of the front three before Neymar signed for Barcelona, although it would not involve the Brazilian likely moving to his less favoured right flank. This potential involves too much upheaval to be a serious consideration.
Previous games without Messi
Messi was controversially left out of the Barcelona starting line-up upon the completion of the winter break last season.
That day Munir and Pedro started against Real Sociedad, with Luis Suarez spearheading the attack. Neymar was also suffering from jet lag after a considerable journey back from South America.
Stretching further back to the season before, Messi endured a couple of injuries in the run up to Christmas. In the pre-Suarez days, Messi was predominantly used through the middle and Cesc Fabregas replaced him for the most part; a combination of Alexis Sanchez, Neymar and Pedro provided the width.
No matter who steps into the breach for Barcelona, there will be an inevitable drop-off, with others suffering in Messi’s absence.
Neymar, in particular, will miss Messi’s sublime passing when cutting back on to that famous left boot and spraying diagonal passes in the final third.
The Brazilian’s sharp runs inside from the left are so dangerous due to Messi’s ability to find him with looping through balls from deep. Without Messi’s surgically precise passing, expect opponents to position their defence a little higher up the field.
Though keeping pace in La Liga will be the main concern during the Messi injury absence, dropped points at the Stadio Olimpico against Roma in Barca’s opening Champions League mean there is now the danger of Leverkusen opening up a five-point gap on Tuesday.
It is paramount that Enrique finds the right solution to avoid too much damage in Messi’s absence.
By Jack Rathborn