Lionel Messi has been written off before, of course, but it’s rare indeed that he’s benched on the back of an underwhelming run of form, yet that was exactly what happened ahead of the Barcelona-Real Betis bout on Saturday.

Pre-match suggestions that Ronald Koeman had opted to name the Argentine superstar among the substitutes due to an ankle problem conflicted with quotes from his assistant Alfred Schreuder, who suggested that the attacker wasn’t ‘fresh’ and that the decision was a ‘technical’ one.

READ MORE: Messi BENCHED for must-win Barcelona clash as injury rumors swirl

After the La Liga clash, Koeman again suggested that an injury picked up in the midweek Dynamo Kyiv outing was the reason why he was benched, although there was no evidence of an ankle complaint when Messi was introduced at the halfway point of the contest.

Even if he had been short of full fitness, however, Koeman certainly needed his star performer on the pitch at this point following a muddled first half during which Barca missed a penalty through Antoine Griezmann and saw Ousmane Dembele’s opener cancelled out by Antonio Sanabria.

During the second half, with Messi influential, Barca romped to a 5-2 victory, flexing their muscles going forward and reminding observers why — on their day — they’re such an irresistible attacking force.


Almost immediately after his introduction, there was a flash of Messi genius, as the veteran – allowing the ball to run past him – contributed a ‘dummy assist’ for Greizmann as the France forward made amends for his prior miss to put Barca ahead.

The super sub scored twice – once from the penalty spot, and then late on following fine work from Sergi Roberto – while wonderkid Pedri was also among the goals for the hosts.

Predictably, the post-match clamor focused on the 33-year-old’s star turn; before this match, he’d netted just one goal in six La Liga outings – registering no assists – but here he had doubled his seasonal tally in just 45 second-half minutes.

He created two goalscoring chances during his cameo, registered a 100-percent shot success rate, and his mere presence appeared to lift his teammates.

Off the bench…Lionel Messi ⚽⚽

Expect considerable discussion on whether it was a masterstroke from Koeman to keep Messi fresh for the second period, or whether it was an error by the Dutch coach to allow Barca to flounder during those opening 45 minutes while his star man sat twiddling his thumbs.

Either way, both questions miss the point.

While Messi did roll back the years to make a handful of decisive contributions off the bench, he alone cannot continue to paper over the cracks of this Barcelona side… even assuming that he’s fully committed to the club moving forward!

Barca were helped significantly by the 60th-minute dismissal by Aissa Mandi, and while Messi’s quick thinking led to their second goal, Griezmann was arguably fortunate that Claudio Bravo’s decision-making let him down.

The emergence of Pedri is a point of optimism, but what of the defense, which conceded twice against Betis, with Clement Lenglet again looking uncertain alongside Gerard Pique.

The Frenchman, initially recruited as a back-up for Samuel Umiti, struggled with his positioning, appeared nervy at times, is clearly vulnerable to pace in behind, and conceded three fouls, receiving one booking.

Similarly, while Sergi Roberto contributed two assists during a lively display going forward, it was clear that Betis focused their attacks down Barca’s right and had identified the Spain international as a point of weakness.

Finally, Ansu Fati, while a precocious and intensely promising young talent, remains a prospect with plenty of rough edges for Koeman to iron out.

At 18, he has time on his side to reach the top of the game, but he lost possession on five occasions alone against Betis, and Barca’s toil appears to be weighing heavy on his young shoulders at times.

Barca may have ended their four-game winless streak, but they are still lacking in several vital departments.

Messi, now coming to the end of the Autumn of his career, showed little sign of weariness as he stepped off the bench in style against Betis, but unless Koeman can oversee dramatic improvement in various key areas within this Barca side, their success will continue to be dependent on the Argentine magician pulling performances like this out of his hat.