Lionel Messi has been written off before, of course, but it is rare indeed for him to sit on the back of overwhelming form but that is exactly what happened before the Barcelona-Real Betis clash on Saturday.
Pre-game suggestions that Ronald Koeman had named the Argentine superstar among the substitutes because of an ankle problem contradicted quotes from his assistant Alfred Schreuder, who pointed out that the attacker was not “fresh” and the decision was “technical” one .
READ MORE: Messi BENCHED to win in Barcelona as injury rumors emerge
After the La Liga clash, Koeman again suggested that a midweek injury from Dynamo Kyiv was the reason he was benched, although there was no sign of an ankle complaint when Messi was introduced halfway through the competition .
Even if he wasn’t fully fit, Koeman needed his star on the pitch at this point after a messy first half in which Barca missed a penalty from Antoine Griezmann and saw Ousmane Dembele’s opener canceled by Antonio Sanabria.
In the second half, when Messi was influential, Barca celebrated a 5-2 win, tensing their muscles and reminding watchers why they are such an irresistible attacking force on their day.
Almost immediately after his introduction, there was a flash of Messi genius when the veteran – who let the ball run past him – provided Greizmann with “dummy assist” as the French striker made up for his previous mistake at Barca to bring in the lead.
The super submarine scored twice – once from the penalty spot and late after Sergi Roberto’s good work – while Wonderkid Pedri was also one of the hosts’ goals.
Predictably, the post-game screaming focused on the 33-year-old’s star twist. Before that game, he’d scored just one goal in six La Liga games – no assists – but here he’d doubled his season record in just 45 minutes in the second half.
During his cameo, he scored two chances to score, had a 100 percent success rate, and his mere presence seemed to elevate his teammates.
Expect considerable discussion on whether it was a masterpiece from Koeman keeping Messi fresh for the second period or whether it was a mistake by the Dutch coach to allow Barca to fidget during those first 45 minutes while his star Man with his thumb turned.
In both cases, both questions miss the point.
While Messi has turned back the years to make a handful of crucial contributions from the bench, he alone cannot further document the rifts of this team in Barcelona … even if he is fully committed to the club!
Barca were greatly helped by the 60th-minute sacking of Aissa Mandi and while Messi’s quick thinking led to their second goal, Griezmann was arguably fortunate to have Claudio Bravo’s decision-making failing him.
Pedri’s appearance is a point of optimism, but what about the defense, which conceded twice against Betis, with Clement Lenglet again looking insecure alongside Gerard Pique.
The Frenchman, who was originally recruited to replace Samuel Umiti, struggled with his positioning, appeared nervous at times, was clearly vulnerable to falling behind, and conceded three fouls with a booking.
While Sergi Roberto provided two assists during a lively appearance, it was clear that Betis had focused their attacks on Barca’s rights and identified the Spanish international as a weak point.
Ultimately, Ansu Fati, despite being a precocious and promising young talent, remains a rough-and-tumble perspective that Koeman can iron out.
At 18 he has time on his side to reach the top of the game but he has lost possession to Betis five times alone and Barca’s efforts seem to weigh heavily on his young shoulders at times.
Barca may have finished their winning streak in four games, but they are still missing a few key sections.
Messi, now starting his career towards the end of the fall, showed little sign of fatigue as he stepped off the bench in style against Betis. However, if Koeman is unable to oversee the dramatic improvements in several key areas of this Barca team, their success will continue to depend on the Argentine magician pulling such feats out of his hat.