Lionel Messi came off the bench for Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao. (Getty)
For the third time in seven days, Barcelona played a La Liga match and did not win. That’s almost unheard of.
But in a modern era defined by and reliant upon one player, it’s far from unfathomable. Especially when that player spent the majority of Saturday’s match sitting on the bench.
Lionel Messi did not start against Athletic Bilbao at Camp Nou. With the Catalans 1-0 down and heading for their second loss of the week, Ernesto Valverde sent him to the rescue. And he did salvage a point in a 1-1 draw.
But the damage had been done with Messi (and Sergio Busquets) looking on, helpless. Barca’s savior time and time again could not undo all of it. He fumed at the referee and flashed shots just wide. He created Munir El Haddadi’s equalizer:
He could not find a winner.
Why Barcelona rests Messi, but why it can’t afford to
Barcelona knows that Messi, in his 15th professional season, cannot play every game, often twice a week, in every competition. He cannot drag Barca to every three points in La Liga, to every Champions League victory, through every round of the Copa Del Rey.
So it tries to steal breaks for the Argentine superstar here and there. With a trip to Tottenham ahead on Wednesday, it figured a home date with 16th-place Athletic Bilbao was a good opportunity to pick up three points without him.
It thought wrong.
Barcelona’s Messi dependence isn’t quite on par with Argentina’s. But it’s trending in that direction.
And Barcelona, in general, is trending in the wrong direction. Its first stumble of the season, a 2-2 draw with 10 men against Girona, was fluky and understandable. A 2-1 loss to Leganes on Wednesday was less so.
Saturday’s draw exacerbates the worry, and could cough up first place to Real Madrid, pending the result of El Derbi Madrileño on Saturday night.
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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.