Grimacing in pain after he nearly scored a record-equalling 85th goal of the year,
Lionel Messi rolled on the ground clutching his left knee and thought he might be headed for an extended injury lay-off.
Instead, his collision with Benfica goalkeeper Artur late in Wednesday’s Champions League match may only rule the Barcelona forward out for one match.
“I sincerely thought it was the last ball I would be touching for a long time because of the pain,” a relieved Messi said at a promotional event at the Nou Camp yesterday. “I tried to go ahead and shoot but I didn’t have the strength.”
Messi collided with Artur in the 85th minute of the 0-0 draw while trying to score a goal that would have put him even with Gerd Mueller with the most goals scored in a calendar year. Barcelona fans at the Camp Nou then watched silently as he was taken off on a stretcher. “I thought it was the last shot I was going to have for a long time,” he explained. “So I decided to gamble and hit it.”
The 25-year-old Argentina international is trying to break Mueller’s 40-year-old scoring record. He has scored 84 goals in 2012 and has four games to catch Mueller, who scored 85 for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.
Messi’s involvement in Wednesday night’s game has been a major talking point in light of the injury he suffered, as the match was essentially meaningless to Tito Vilanova’s men, already assured of top spot in Group G. There were suggestions the Argentina forward had only played in order to chase the milestone.
However, Messi said the record was not as important to him as was being made out.
“As I have always said, for me the record is not an obsession,” he said. “My colleagues have said they will help me and with them, I am not worried. It would be great, and hopefully if I do it, it will stand for a long time like Mueller’s, but it’s not something I worry about. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter. But we are close so we will try.”
Messi also insisted he never let the fear of injury affect his approach to the game, and preferred to stay sharp by playing. “Something similar could have happened in training or anywhere else,” he said. “Whenever you walk onto a pitch there is a risk.”
Messi said he could miss Sunday’s league match at Real Betis, but had originally thought his career was in jeopardy. Messi worked in the gym as his team-mates trained yesterday but said he still had an outside chance of playing at the weekend.
“I feel much better than yesterday. I don’t know if I will be there on Sunday,” he said. “It depends on how [my left knee] progresses. I am grateful for all the messages of support I have received.
“I didn’t think anything when it happened. I just believed from the pain that I would be sidelined for a long time. At that moment I thought the worst. Later, when the doctor examined me in the changing room and ruled out a serious injury, it was a relief.”
Vilanova sent on Messi with about 30 minutes to play even though Barcelona entered the game with first place in their group secured. In his first season since taking over from Pep Guardiola, Vilanova has led Barca to a record start in the Spanish league with 13 wins and a draw.
Messi said. “In the last five years, since Guardiola arrived, it has always been like this. When we weren’t playing for anything I would still play a few minutes. Under Tito it has been the same.”
The last time Messi missed a match due to injury was in September 2010. Vilanova was adamant he would not change the way Messi was handled. “Should we sub him out every time we’re leading 3-0 in case he picks up an injury?” he added. We’ve never behaved this way. I’d make the same decision (to play him) seeing that he can get injured at any moment.”
Vilanova made a host of changes for Wednesday’s match, several of them enforced, but Messi’s apparent let-off was not the only good news on the injury front yesterday. Andres Iniesta, Alexis Sanchez, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves all trained with the rest of the squad, while Eric Abidal was able to return to the field for lighter workouts.
Barca could now face the likes of Porto, Arsenal, AC Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Galatasaray in the last 16, although Vilanova does not have a preference. “Whoever we play against will be a big team,” he said. “The round of 16 is always complicated. We did what we had to do, we wanted to finish first and have that small advantage of playing the return leg at home.”