Football

Messi underscores importance to Barca

Barca talisman comes off bench to salvage a draw against Sevilla

Lionel Messi's late heroics against Sevilla to snatch a 2-2 draw for Barcelona yesterday morning (Singapore time) showed it is not just Argentina who have an unhealthy over-reliance on the brilliance of the five-time World Player of the Year.

Messi was forced to watch his country's humiliating 6-1 defeat by Spain last Tuesday from the stands due to continued muscle discomfort.

As he sat in the dugout watching leaders Barca trail 2-0 at sixth-placed Sevilla, he might have reflected how much his club also seem to rely on him.

Messi came on to score an 89th-minute leveller and helped Barca stay unbeaten in La Liga and Champions League, but they looked glaringly vulnerable when their leader was not on the pitch.

Defender Samuel Umtiti made it easy for Franco Vazquez to give Sevilla the lead as he left the midfielder unmarked in the area, and the Frenchman was also slow to react in the lead-up to the second goal, scored by Luis Muriel on the rebound.

The damage could have been far greater had the home side not been so wasteful in attack, while Barca rarely looked like scoring at the other end until Messi came off the bench for Ousmane Demebele in the 58th minute.

Every team would be different with or without Messi, and I won’t mention what happened a few days ago. Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde, referring to Argentina’s 6-1 loss to Spain in a friendly without Messi

"Every time he touches the ball he is decisive, but we all knew that already," said Barca coach Ernesto Valverde, who could not help but bring up what happened to Argentina against Spain while Messi was absent.

"Every team would be different with or without Messi, and I won't mention what happened a few days ago," Valverde added.

"We had planned for him to play even though he still has a bit of discomfort. He had gone a bit of time without playing and he needed to play."

Barca were immediately lifted by the mere presence of their all-time top scorer and, moments after he entered the fray as a substitute, Luis Suarez hit the post before Rakitic struck the same post.

Suarez pulled a goal back in the 88th minute and 57 seconds later, Messi met a cutback from Philippe Coutinho first time, smashing the ball under the grasp of Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico and preserving Barca's long unbeaten league run, which was stretched to 37 games, one shy of a La Liga record.

"That is what Leo is all about as he keeps on showing us again and again," Suarez said of his irrepressible strike partner.

"The team just kept on working and didn't give up and it was down to him to score the equaliser."

Barcelona have now gone 37 consecutive league games since losing to Malaga in April last year and stand one match away from equalling Real Sociedad's record set in 1980.

Messi had been left out of the starting line-up due to a hamstring complaint, with Valverde perhaps keeping one eye on their Champions League quarter-final against Roma on Thursday morning (Singapore time).

Valverde expects him to be available for the clash at the Nou Camp, though.

"Today as a precaution he has not started, but we think that against Roma, he may be available," Valverde said.

"We will see how he reacts after today's match. But we think it will be fine."

Sevilla, meanwhile, must recover in time for their Champions League last-eight at Bayern Munich on Wednesday morning (Singapore time).

"We are all a little angry in the dressing room but football is like that," Sevilla coach Vincenzo Montella said after the 2-2 draw.

"When you have chances to score, you have to score and we had many chances to close the game in the second half."

Earlier, Gareth Bale made a strong case for a starting spot against Juventus by scoring twice, including a penalty, in Real Madrid's 3-0 win at Las Palmas as Cristiano Ronaldo was rested.

Bale's double, sandwiching a Karim Benzema strike, served as a timely reminder to coach Zinedine Zidane, with the trip to Turin for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals to come, also on Wednesday morning (Singapore time).

The only worry for Zidane was the sight of defender Nacho hobbling off in the first half, with what appeared to be a hamstring problem. - REUTERS, AFP

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