Having picked up a thigh problem in the 2-2 draw over Valencia, the Argentine was a doubt heading into the first of three Clasicos in the space of four weeks.
The fact Barca face Real in the return leg on February 26 before meeting in the league on March 2, as well as travel to Sevilla on February 23 and take on Lyon over two legs in the Champions League in the coming weeks, suggested that perhaps Messi should be not rushed back into action ahead of the difficult run of fixtures.
Lionel Messi started the Clasico on the bench
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However, Messi was deemed fit enough for a place on the bench at the Nou Camp, offering Erneste Valverde a comforting substitute option should he need it.
Some four months ago, Messi missed the home league meeting with Real entirely due to a fractured arm, but his team-mates rose to the occasion with a 5-1 drubbing that left opposing manager Julen Lopetegui out of a job.
But on this occasion, against a resurgent Real who looked like they had a point to prove, Barca were edgy and struggled for fluency up front while Messi sat waiting in the wings, with Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Malcom all often dancing to a different tune.
After Real’s fast start – a sixth-minute opener from Lucas Vazquez – Barca did manage to respond before Messi emerged thanks to Malcom in the second half, but the crowd had long begun chanting and calling for his introduction, and had already been lifted even by the sight of him warming up on the sidelines.
And so at 1-1, Messi was brought on to raucous applause, and with 25 minutes to play, he had just enough time to work his magic and hand Barca a first-leg advantage.
Real had other ideas, however, and though Messi created a few openings for his team-mates, he was starved of opportunities himself, while the visitors even ended the second half on top and could have stole victory themselves had Gareth Bale's touch not let him down.
The tie ultimately ended 1-1 and handed Real the slight advantage going into the return leg at the Bernabeu, and Barca’s overall performance ultimately posed the question of whether Messi should have been risked at all.
Lionel Messi is brought down by Lucas Vazquez
Image credit: Getty Images
Without him, they looked like a team waiting for him, and with him, they became understandably over-reliant on the forward to produce a match-winning moment.
Of course, it is difficult to call Messi a hindrance and stand by it, but on this occasion his presence on the bench affected the whole outlook of the game, and looked to have clouded the thoughts of Barca’s attackers on the pitch. Omitting Messi completely would not have gone down well with the fans present at the Nou Camp, but hindsight points towards it being a wise move.
A key month now lies ahead for Barca as they continue to fight on three fronts. Messi will be integral to the cause, but he will need a helping hand.