Barcelona will be without Lionel Messi on Tuesday as they look to avoid a repeat of last season’s shock defeat to Celtic at Parkhead. In the surprise result of the Champions League’s group stage, and one of the best in Celtic’s recent history, the Scottish champions stunned their illustrious opponents with a 2-1 win in November 2012.
At the time it was seen as nothing more than blip for Barcelona, but it turned out to be a forbearer of far more costly failures to come in the knockout stages. Putting that result right would be a welcome early statement by Gerardo Martino that the Catalans are in a position to return to Europe’s summit.
Yet, they will have to do it without their talisman. Martino has been vocal about the need to keep the likes of Messi fresh for the end of the season and his words now have extra weight after the Argentinian suffered a thigh injury in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Almeria. While not underestimating the loss of Messi, Martino believes he has the players capable of meaning it is not a crucial factor.
"It isn't easy to replace the best player in the world, but we have a great squad,” he said, according to Marca. “If we don't have a good night and lose, we won't use his absence as an excuse. I don't see Messi's absence being be a problem for the other players.”
In the past, the automatic response to Messi being unavailable was to bring Cesc Fabregas into the side as a “false nine.” But Martino has suggested that this is far from the only option he will look to utilize.
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“He’s great at linking up with the three behind and he sets his team mates up really well,” Martino said of Fabregas, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “With Leo we cause the opposition problems in the last 25 meters.
“The season is very long and there will be times we don’t have Leo. Neymar can’t be ruled out, just as Alexis [Sanchez] can’t be. We’ve got various options and we’ll see which one is the best. It’s not always going to be that when Messi is out Fabregas replaces him.”
The news of Messi’s injury has predictably been greeted quite differently in Glasgow than in Catalonia. Although even Celtic boss Neil Lennon admits his disappointment that the Ballon d’Or winner will not be gracing the Celtic Park turf, he could not hide his relief that his side will not have to try and keep a lid on Messi’s talents.
“It´s obviously very good news for us as he´s the best player in the world," he said in his pre-match press conference on Monday. "However, it´s tinged with sadness as it´s always good to see the best players play here in Glasgow."
Celtic are likely to be further encouraged that Barcelona’s already vulnerable backline has been further weakened by Javier Mascherano joining Carles Puyol and Jordi Alba on the sidelines.
The home side are not without their own injuries. Midfielder Joe Ledley is definitely ruled out, while Derek Boerrigter is a major doubt after failing to train on Monday. James Forrest and Beram Kayal are both fit and available for selection.