As Lionel Messi steps out, can Neymar step up?https://indianexpress.com/article/sports/football/as-lionel-messi-steps-out-can-neymar-step-up/

As Lionel Messi steps out, can Neymar step up?

With Lionel Messi injured, Barcelona will bank on Neymar against Leverkusen in Champions League.

Lionel Messi, Messi Barcelona, Lionel Messi Barcelona Injury, Messi Barcelona injury, Neymar, Barcelona Champions League, UEFA Champions League, Football News, Football
Iker Casillas will break the record for most Champions League matches played when he will appear in what will be his 152nd encounter in the competition, against Chelsea. (Source: AP)

Without Lionel Messi, it’s time for Neymar to step up on the big stage. Barcelona will be without Messi for 7-8 weeks, starting with Tuesday’s Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen, after the Argentina forward injured his left knee.

“It’s a shame for football,” Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voeller said. “You simply like to watch him play.” The last time Leverkusen played at Barcelona in 2012, Messi scored five goals in a 7-1 victory.

Messi was hurt on Saturday in the 2-1 win over Las Palmas in the Spanish league. Neymar played, but missed a penalty after Luis Suarez had already scored the opening two goals. Because of the injury, Barcelona coach Luis Enrique faces the challenge of picking an attacking formation that will keep his team in competitions as Messi recovers.

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“It’s great news for our rival, but for us it’s a test and we have to accept it and overcome it,” Enrique said. “Injuries are the worst thing in football and they carry a special weight when it’s Messi.”

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Enrique has some decisions to make. He can abandon his favoured three-pronged attacking formation and instead opt for the security of an extra midfielder, or include Munir El Haddadi to support Suarez and Neymar up front.

El Haddadi, a 20-year-old Spain forward who is considered one of the brightest prospects in the game, has yet to score in four matches this season. He did, however, supply Suarez with an assist against Las Palmas — the Uruguayan’s fifth goal in nine matches. Neymar has scored three goals in six matches.

Bayer Leverkusen have recovered from their Bundesliga mini-slump of three losses with two straight victories. The latest win was a 3-0 victory over Werder Bremen with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Hakan Calhanoglu both on the bench at the start.

Messi won’t be on the field, and the rest of the Barcelona team needs to get used to it. “Like it or not, Messi is our best player, the one who causes the most problems,” Barcelona defender Marc Bartra said. “It’s a major loss but now we have to become even stronger.” Barcelona could also be without Jordi Alba and Thomas Vermaelen, who are injured.

Depleted Roma

Roma won over the weekend, but forwards Francesco Totti and Edin Dzeko went off injured during a 5-1 victory over Carpi and will be out for up to four weeks. Also, midfielder Seydou Keita is expected to be sidelined for about two weeks after injuring his right thigh during the same match.

“We wanted the three points, but I would call it a Pyrrhic victory because of the three injuries after 50 minutes,” Roma coach Rudi Garcia said. It was a first win for Roma in four matches, including their opening Champions League draw against Barcelona.

Another positive was Gervinho finding the back of the net for the first time in almost a year. The Ivory Coast forward also hit the post. “He’s found confidence again and he can do great things up front,” Garcia said. “We have to be aware of our strengths and put them always on the pitch.”

Alexander Hleb’s return to BATE was supposed to give the team much-needed experience of playing at the top level. However, Hleb was injured 30 minutes into BATE’s opening 4-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen with what the club has described only as a severe muscle injury. The former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder has not played since and is an injury doubt for Roma’s visit on Tuesday.

Since Hleb’s injury, BATE have continued their steady progress toward a 10th straight Belarusian title — the club leads by 12 points with five games to play. Defender Maxim Zhavnerchik and striker Vitaly Rodionov are also injured and unlikely to play against Roma.

Chasing record

Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas is set to break the Champions League appearance record when Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho makes his latest return to the Estadio do Dragao on Tuesday. The pair had a difficult relationship during Mourinho’s three years at Real Madrid, but after the Portugese left, Casillas captained the team to victory over neighbours Atletico Madrid in the 2014 final, earning his third winner’s medal.

He played his 151st match in the competition as Porto, who he joined in July, drew their opening Group G match 2-2 away to Dynamo Kiev. That equalled the record set by former Barcelona midfielder Xavi, and Casillas is on the verge of breaking it.

Both teams go into the game after dropping points in 2-2 draws away to lowly opposition at the weekend. Porto were held by Moreirense on Friday night and suffered injuries to two players. Algerian midfielder Yacine Brahimi, who scored five goals in nine Champions League games last season, hurt his right knee and was replaced at halftime.

Centre-back Maicon ended the match with a sprained ankle and is among several players that coach Julen Lopetegui said will have to be assessed ahead of the game. Defender Ivan Marcano is available after suspension and Lopetegui will be back on the touchline after being banned for the match in Kiev.

Chelsea’s comfortable 4-0 win at home to Maccabi Tel Aviv on Matchday One was a welcome respite after two successive Premier League defeats. They subsequently beat Arsenal 2-0 but on Saturday were held 2-2 at Newcastle United, only salvaging a draw with two goals in the last 11 minutes from Brazilians Ramires and Willian. Mourinho rated their first half performance “minus one out of ten” after a game that left the English champions 15th in the table.

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Spanish international striker Diego Costa, serving a domestic suspension, will be available in Porto, where Mourinho became a hero by leading the Dragons to 2004 Champions League success. He has taken Chelsea there twice before in the competition, losing 2-1 later that year and drawing 1-1 in 2007, while they won 1-0 under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009.