The silence was deafening. Leo Messi was down in the penalty area and immediately the Camp Nou fell quiet. A long ball from Sergi Roberto had reached him and, with a single superb touch, he had controlled and dashed past the defender to the top of the six yard box. There, he prepared to shoot. As he did so, Pedro Bigas came across to block. The impact twisted Messi’s knee and he went to ground. Up in the stands, they knew it was probably serious, not least because Messi is not in the habit of going to ground for nothing; still less staying there. But there he was. The game against Las Palmas was only three minutes in.
Canal Plus’s cameras caught the sequence that followed. Barcelona’s doctor Ricard Pruna looked at Messi’s knee, moving it gently from side to side. There was noise now, the fans chanting “Messi! Messi!”. Pruna gave the bench a thumbs up but Luis Enrique was not convinced. Messi came back on and a minute later got the ball. He advance a metre or so, gave a pass, and then stopped again. Gesturing for the bench to wait a bit a moment, he tried to carry on but soon he was sitting on the turf and the stadium went silent once more. He departed with eight minutes on the clock.
Barcelona won 2-1, Luis Suárez getting both goals, but most people were more interested in what was happening at the Cruz Blau clinic, where Messi had been taken. Half an hour later, he emerged hobbling and climbed into a car. The statement was released quickly. Messi had suffered a tear in his medial ligament in his left knee and was expected to be out for six to eight weeks.
Messi will miss games against Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla, Rayo, Bate Borisov, Eibar, Getafe Bate again, Villarreal and a Copa del Rey clash, whose opponent is not yet known but who will be from a lower division. He will also miss four Argentina games: against Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia. The hope is for him to return in time for the clásico against Real Madrid, now confirmed for Saturday 21 November.
The question is obvious, even if the flippant and fundamentally true answer might be “with Luis Suarez and Neymar, of course”: how do you replace someone irreplaceable? As El Mundo Deportivo’s cover put it: “Gulp!”
* David Moyes described the Basque derby as “tactically quite British.” Most didn’t take it as much of a compliment. It finished Real Sociedad 0-0 Athletic Bilbao and as Michael Robinson, working as a commentator for Canal Plus, put it: the doubt was whether the next person carried off on a stretcher would be the ball, so badly had it been booted about.
El Diario Vasco described it as “a derby like the old days”, more emotion than football, but others thought it was actually getting worse. El Mundo moaned: “The derby is becoming an insufferable exercise in tactics-first and mean spiritedness”, calling it “vulgar” and “the saddest derby of recent decades.”
This was the week in which the San Sebastián film festival had been in the city, the winners departing the day before, and one local columnist took inspiration. The day before, Iñaki Izquierdo had urged David Moyes to find motivation wherever he could and to win the game “for the cross of St Andrews, or the Loch Ness Monster.”
Now he wrote: “The fans feared that they were missing something, like the audience at the film festival who find themselves half way through a film but haven’t understood a bloody thing. For a moment there, they think they are the problem; that they haven’t got the message that the prestigious Albanian director has been sending out and that they next day they’ll pick up the paper and find rave reviews from the expert critics … but, no, it wasn’t that; it really was that bad.”
All of which was a bit of an exaggeration, and missed the point that teams don’t always play the way they want to but the way they can, a point made by both managers afterwards when they explained the long balls via the intensity and pressure applied by their opponents, but it wasn’t great. Still, at least it remains the most fraternal derby around, with fans from both clubs sitting together and after the game, Moyes and Ernesto Valverde met in a small room the Scot has at Anoeta — a British tradition that is rarely upheld in Spain. They had shared the points and shared a beer too.
* At the end of their 576th game in the first division, a 1-0 win over Atlético Madrid, Villarreal found themselves somewhere they have never been before in their entire 92-year history: top of the table. It does not mean they will stay there of course: Villarreal are the fortieth team to have been sole leaders of the league and only Barcelona, Athletic, Madrid, Atlético, Betis, Valencia, Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Deportivo have ever won it, while their first place this week means that there is only one team in the top division that have never ever occupied the leadership of the league. They’re not about to, either: six games into the season, Málaga have not even scored yet.