Like any rookie coach who makes a mistake and does not have the fortitude to admit it, FC Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova claims, on the team's website, that he doesn't regret sending Lionel Messi on the field in the 58th minute of the UEFA Champions League game against Benfica of Lisbon at the Camp Nou. Messi was carted off the field five minutes before the end of the game after injuring his left knee in a collision with Benfica's keeper Artur Moraes on a breakaway.
"If I had a do-over I'd make the same decision," said Vilanova. "He's a player that likes to play ... he's not focused on breaking the record that everyone is talking about, if that were the case he would have played against Alavés and the full 90 minutes tonight. Playing is part of his physical training..."
Vilanova made a mistake and the statement made to defend a bad decision is even worse. When he spoke, right after the game, the gravity of Messi's injury wasn't known. Hours after the game the club announced that Messi suffered only a contusion on the outside of his left knee, but that further tests are necessary to determine the extent of the injury. Let's hope--for Messi's sake, not Vilanova's--that no real damage was done and the Argentine star will be back in the lineup quickly, perhaps even for the league game against Betis in Sevilla this Sunday.
The game against Benfica was meaningless. Barça had already clinched first place in the group and a place among the top 16 teams that will continue the CL race in the spring. The game was so inconsequential that Vilanova lined up a team made up entirely of reserves and players, mostly young and inexperienced, from the B squad. Yes, some of the regulars needed a break, and the coach could have rested half of the starters. But the entire team?
There's no apparent logic behind Vilanova's decision to start the game with a makeshift team of inexperienced youngsters who never played in this configuration before and certainly will never play again. What we saw Wednesday wasn't Barça. The impersonators were clearly outplayed by the Lusitans, couldn't create anything offensively and made so many mistakes on defense that Benfica could have been ahead by two or three goals at the half. In what Spanish sports newspaper AS called a "triste empate" (sad draw) reserve goalie Pinto was Barça's best player. Did Fabregas really need a rest?
And if you think Messi really doesn't care about Gerd Mueller's record of 85 goals in a calendar year--he's at 84 and he certainly cares--why put him in at all? And if you know he cares why send him in almost one hour into the irrelevant game, probably without a thorough warm-up and surrounded by kids he may not know personally? Let's hope Messi's OK and nobody would ask Tito these questions. But to say "no regrets" before he knows the fate of his breadwinner shows the rookie coach likes to play with fire without knowing or caring that he may burn down the house.
As a kid, Vladimir Moraru dreamed to watch Kubala and Evaristo, but never had a chance. Wearing Messi's Barcelona shirt at 66 makes up for everything.
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- Lionel Messi