"For me, to see Messi on the pitch is always good news. Regardless of the shirt he wears, it is no doubt good news for football."
Luis Enrique’s lyrical waxing of Lionel Messi’s decision to reverse his international retirement carried complimentary tones for his club’s most gifted player, but Barcelona fans and staff, playing as well as supporting, would have liked it better had Messi stuck to his retirement decision.
The Copa America 2016 final loss for Messi’s Argentina was seemingly the final straw in the world’s best player’s attempts to succeed with his national team. In three years, Argentina had lost three finals, the last of which came earlier this summer as Messi missed a penalty in a shootout loss to Chile.
“No te vayas Lio” (Lio, don’t go) went viral in the days following Messi’s announcement. In a country where football defines aspects of culture and its outlook, Messi’s retirement was akin to a national tragedy.
Fortunately for La Albiceleste, Messi has since decided to play again for his country, and new Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza has named him in the squad to face Uruguay next month.
But what does Messi’s Argentina return mean for Barca? Luis Enrique had earlier admitted that Messi’s initial decision to retire would play into Barca’s hands as the No.10 would spend far less time travelling and traversing continents and also play less games throughout the season without any international commitments.
Luis Enrique’s belief that no Argentina games for Messi stands to benefit Barca stems from the fact that La Pulga has had to travel across the world to play in meaningless friendlies in recent years -- His trips with Argentina to China and Hong Kong to face Brazil and Hong Kong in 2014 quickly spring to mind.
While it might seem Barca were not greatly affected by Messi’s stints with Argentina, the larger picture here suggests that players tend to suffer from fatigue and wear towards the business end of a season when the stakes are high. Of course, this isn’t to say that Barca will be the worst sufferers with Messi’s Argentina return as virtually every big European club now have players from South America and have to deal with problems pertaining to those players’ international commitments.
For example, last season while coming back from international duties in South America, Messi played only 30 minutes to inspire Barca to a 2-1 win at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico Madrid in early season, but struggled to meaningfully impact the El Clasico loss against Real Madrid after trips to Santiago and Cordoba for two World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Bolivia respectively, both matches being played in late March, when the season was in its final stretches.
Once again, Messi cut short his vacations by a week to join Barca’s pre-season preparations early this time round, and La Pulga has been heavily involved in all the friendly matches the Blaugrana have played in off season.
A longer pre-season generally means players are better conditioned for the year ahead but with Messi returning to the Argentina set-up, the likelihood of his selection in the Albiceleste’s eight qualifiers over the course of the 2016/17 season is high, which means more travel and less recovery for one of Barca’s most important players.
As a direct result, Barca’s search for a fourth striker gains some significance here. The club have been ridiculed in media circles for their extensive search, which according to Sport, has about 36 names of varying profiles ranging from Robin van Persie to Gabigol -- and the search still continues, regretfully.
With their standout trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar expected to make long trips to South America during international breaks, another striker who could seamlessly slot into the XI when their mainstays are either stretched or injured remains a priority for Luis Enrique, Robert Fernandez and the under-pressure Barca board.
With Messi back with Argentina, Barca’s priorities in the market have now changed. The immediate need to bring in a fourth striker assumes greater significance.
To be honest, there aren’t many positives for Cules but, at least, the No.10’s decision to reverse his international retirement plans means Barca are now forced to loosen their purse strings before the new season kicks off next weekend.