Lionel Messi injury places even more pressure on Neymar and Co. at Barca
Barcelona returned to their winning ways with an unconvincing yet valuable 2-1 home victory over Las Palmas on Saturday. However, not a single one of the 99,000 supporters who attended the game at the Camp Nou left the stadium with a smile.
Their beloved Lionel Messi had to be taken off on a stretcher after just three minutes on the pitch, and judging by his teammates' reaction as soon as the injury happened, the No. 10 was inevitably destined for a long spell away from football.
The early fears were confirmed shortly after; Messi's collision with Pedro Bigas inside the 18-yard box resulted in a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
With club doctors predicting the quadruple Ballon d'Or winner will need at least eight weeks to recover full fitness, the huge weight of responsibility the No.10 carries on his shoulders given his status as the world's best player will have to be shared among the very few attacking players left in Luis Enrique's increasingly depleted squad.
It is essential that those who are left to pick up the pieces take a step forward in his absence.
Here are five crucial players for Barcelona while Messi is out:
The Uruguayan international has played an instrumental role since joining the Catalans in the summer of 2014 after his spectacular spell at Liverpool. However, it would be fair to say that, despite his 30 goals in 52 appearances, his performances to date have been more focused on supporting Messi's leadership than becoming the main man himself.
The situation changed on Saturday.
Suarez's transition into Barcelona's leading threat started as soon as Messi was forced to leave the pitch in agony. Against Las Palmas, the 28-year-old striker took a visible step forward with an assertive brace following an impressive header and a powerful shot which zoomed past Javi Varas and into the top corner.
Given his role as Barcelona's most central attacking reference, expect the No. 9 to be the target of an increased number of crosses from both flanks.
The Brazil captain will get his first real opportunity to prove he can be the next big star at the Camp Nou without Messi's shadow constantly hanging over him. Considering the No. 11 has been Messi's partner in crime for well over two years, it will certainly be interesting to see how the former Santos forward performs in his absence.
While Neymar's performances of late have been far from his best, he still has the best dribbling skills among the very few attacking players left in Barcelona's current squad. His impressive pace and confidence when running at defenders will help Luis Enrique's men following Messi's injury. He also has the crucial task of making the Catalans' attack less predictable by mixing inch-perfect passes to Suarez with Messi-like dribbling slaloms towards the centre.
Munir El Haddadi
The La Masia graduate has been under fire in recent weeks after a string of below-par performances whenever trusted by Luis Enrique. His poor finishing, continued inability to run past defenders and the ease at which rivals can predict his next move have resulted in significant doubts that the Madrid-born youngster is ready for first-team football.
However, the 20-year-old may still become a regular in Barca's starting XI due to the injuries suffered by both Messi, Rafinha and the club's inability to sign any replacements to cover the gap left after the departure of Pedro Rodriguez to Chelsea.
Against Las Palmas, Munir was introduced as soon as Messi's injury became apparent. To his credit, he responded to the manager's trust by combining with Sergi Roberto for the opener, assisting Suarez for his second, and perhaps most importantly, delivering his best overall performance of the season.
For both his own and Barca's collective sake, Munir's progression must continue so that he can improve his terrible record of one goal in 18 appearances for the first team.
El Canario only played 10 minutes against Las Palmas but given his mobility and pace, should be trusted far more often. Even if his embarrassing miss in the dying minutes of Saturday's win is taken into consideration, Sandro should definitely jump ahead of Munir in Luis Enrique's pecking order. He is capable of offering the team far more width.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. If, as is likely, Luis Enrique realises that neither Munir nor Sandro have demonstrated enough qualities to become a regular fixture to the starting XI of the current Spanish and European champions, he may think outside the box in order to find an alternative solution until Messi recovers full fitness.
Everyone is fully aware that Iniesta has cemented his legacy as one of the best creative midfielders the world has ever seen, but he was repeatedly deployed as a winger under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova in an attempt to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the Catalans' midfield.
Sure, the experiment failed miserably and ended up with the No. 4 shipped out to Chelsea after failing miserably at the Camp Nou, but at least it proved that Iniesta could also work his magic from the wings if need be.