When Lionel Messi sat on the turf, ruefully accepting that an injury to his left knee would end his involvement in Barcelona’s Liga match against Las Palmas on September 26, the pensive looks written across the faces of his team-mates and the Camp Nou faithful told a clear story.
Barcelona might be Europe’s dominant 21st century club, bursting with talented individuals, but they rightly fear operating without their extraordinary ringmaster, who is finally set to return in Saturday’s Clasico trip to Real Madrid.
In every great achievement from the club’s recent history, from the tiki-taka perfection of the Pep Guardiola era to the repeat of their 2008-09 treble last season that mixed these fundamentals with more direct, aggressive attacking play, all-time record goalscorer Messi stands tall.
The great Argentine’s relative drop-off in form for much of the 2013-14 season – 41 goals in 46 club matches and 16 assists would mark a career-defining return for almost any other player – resulted in Barca ending the campaign without a major trophy.
With Messi back to his imperious best last term – 57 games, 58 goals, 31 assists – Luis Enrique’s team swept all before them.
Unfortunately for the Catalan faithful, at the time of Messi’s injury, the current season was developing an uneasy air of 2013-14 all over again.
The Las Palmas match came three days after Celta Vigo dealt out a chastening 4-1 defeat, as Barca found themselves in the wholly unfamiliar position of being outdone in terms of attacking verve and ingenuity. Before that, points were dropped at Roma in the Champions League and Athletic Bilbao claimed the Spanish Super Cup to avenge their May Copa Del Rey final loss.
If there was ever an inopportune time to lose Messi for two months with knee ligament damage, this was it.
Initially a footnote to the story of the fallen hero, Luis Suarez’s brace to secure a 2-1 win over the Canary Islanders was actually the start of something far more significant.
The feted ‘MSN’ forward line became a duo and Brazil superstar Neymar and Suarez set about shouldering a considerable burden with gusto.
Across all competitions this season, Neymar and Suarez have 13 goals and six assists apiece, while they are responsible for 20 of Barcelona’s 25 Liga goals.
The pair’s on-field understanding continues to flourish and, since Messi’s injury, all Liga assists by Neymar have led to Suarez goals and vice-versa.
“The injury [to Messi] has shown that Neymar and Suarez are able to carry the team on their backs,” said former Barca and Real striker Alfonso Perez in Marca ahead the Bernabeu showdown.
The star forwards are not without a supporting cast.
If Neymar’s audacious solo volley against Villarreal earlier this month provides the highlight on Barcelona’s season showreel to date, Sergi Roberto’s pirouetted backheel assist to Suarez in the win at Getafe comes a close second.
The versatile Roberto has enjoyed a breakout campaign, standing out as the latest graduate of the club’s La Masia academy who appears to have been born with a ball at his feet.
At his best, the 23-year-old calls to mind Xavi’s effortless poise – the midfield maestro who was the central cog in Barcelona and Spain’s tiki-taka revolution.
Astonishingly, Xavi’s departure before the 2014-15 campaign was not keenly felt due to Ivan Rakitic’s majestic maiden season at Camp Nou. The Croatia midfielder, like Messi pursuing a return from injury to face Madrid, demonstrates that there should always be life after the greats for Barcelona.
Media speculation this week has linked Messi to a largely unimaginable switch to the Premier League. Whether he leaves through glorious retirement or a gripping transfer saga, Messi’s eventual departure will undoubtedly shake Barcelona’s modern world of supreme footballing artistry to its core.
But over recent weeks, Neymar and Suarez have demonstrated that world will keep turning.