Doctors have been called to the home of Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, further casting a cloud over the Catalan club, forced this week in to the unusual position of having to defend the form of their most celebrated player following poor results in domestic and European cup competitions.
The seriousness of Messi’s condition is unclear but the news only adds to a rare sense of uneasy at the Nou Camp.
Defeat on Tuesday night at the hands of rivals Real Madrid saw Jose Mourinho’s side progress to the final of the Copa del Rey at the expense of Barcelona, while a 2-0 defeat away to AC Milan has left them needing to rediscover their verve in the second leg or risk ending their participation in this season’s Champions League.
Only a fool would accuse the Argentine of failing to deliver in the important matches, having scored in two Champions League finals, but after subdued performances against AC Milan and Real Madrid, questions are being asked, though it is unclear how much the illness affected him in both games.
The four-times World Player of the Year and leading scorer in a club team many consider to be the greatest of all time, was a shadow of his usual self at the San Siro last week.
The same happened again at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, when Cristiano Ronaldo, the player with whom he is always compared, scored twice in a 3-1 second-leg victory to guide Real into the Spanish cup final, 4-2 on aggregate.
“It is about the team, not about whether Messi is better or worse,” Barca midfielder Andres Iniesta said in defence of his team-mate.
“We have scored a lot of goals, and so has he in particular. It is just in these two key games we have lacked accuracy and composure.
“When the team doesn’t work well, it is everyone’s responsibility.”
Messi, who plays almost every game for Barcelona, has resembled the forlorn figure he was with Argentina a couple of years ago when criticised for failing to perform on the international stage.
He shrugged off suggestions he was tired at the weekend telling, Barca TV: “I am used to playing a lot of games now, and I prefer it this way. I feel better if I don’t rest.”
Talk of decline at the Nou camp is mischievously premature, sitting as they are at the top of La Liga with a healthy 12-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, 16 points ahead of champions Real in third.
Messi is the division’s top scorer with 38 goals, netting more goals himself than 16 other teams have tallied in total in a 20-team league. However, he and his team have struggled when confronted with tightly-organised defences in recent weeks.
Tito Vilanova, who succeeded Pep Guardiola at the end of last season, has been absent since the turn of the year after needing a second round of surgery following an operation to remove a tumour from his saliva glands in November 2011.
Although his assistant Jordi Roura is in constant contact, there is little doubt that Vilanova’s tactical knowledge has been missed in games at a time of the season when coaches really earn their money.
Messi’s fellow forwards Alexis Sanchez, David Villa and Pedro have only contributed 12 goals between them in the league, opening the club to danger if Messi is below his imperious best. By successfully placing Messi in a straitjacket, Milan and Real both managed to stifle Barca, crowding them out and cutting the supply lines from Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.