Superstar Messi on the sidelines at Shah Alam friendly

Superstar Messi on the sidelines at Shah Alam friendly


MALAYSIA 1 - (Amri Yahyah 40)

BARCELONA 3 - (Cesc Fabregas 33, Neymar 43, Gerard Pique 74)

Messi! Messi! Messi! The 50,000 Shah Alam crowd chanted the name of the four-time World Player of Year, but to no avail.

Argentine superstar Lionel Messi did stroll out of the tunnel and acknowledged the cheers of the fans.

But he was wearing slippers and cut a forlorn figure wearing a red bib, unmoved, seating on an overcrowded bench that extended beyond the dugout.

The 26-year-old had been injured during Friday's training on a poor pitch at Bukit Jalil, and the Catalan giants just would not risk him even for a single minute, just days before their La Liga campaign kicks off next Monday against Levante.

Messi was not just sorely missed by the fans, but also his team, who still managed to pull off their famed tiki-taka passing movement, but without much penetration or invention that the King of the Nou Camp would have provided.

Barca so missed the man who scored an incredible 271 goals in 269 games in the last five seasons that they even uncharacteristically resorted to long passes and long shots.

While they opened the scoring after just 12 minutes in the 7-1 drubbing of Thailand on Wednesday, they took more than half an hour to score the first goal through Cesc Fabregas, who filled in for Messi in the false No. 9 position.

Though the former Arsenal man netted with a weak header that Khairul Fahmi Che Mat failed to hold, Fabregas was clearly not of Messi's class and struggled without another forward to link up with ahead of him.

The biggest cheers of the night were surprisingly for veteran Malaysian striker Amri Yahyah, who had another night to remember against top European opposition.

The 32-year-old had grabbed a brace in a 3-2 defeat by Manchester United in 2009, and last night, the Malaysian did it again, when he blasted in a delightful 40th-minute equaliser, after great work on the left flank by S Kunanlan, whose pace took him past Gerard Pique.

"Messi! Messi! Mess!" was momentarily replaced by "Malaysia! Malaysia!"

The Tigers could even have taken the lead earlier on in the 20th minute when Johor Darul Takzim striker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha burst past Barca's defence, only to see his shot deflected on to the post by Victor Valdes.

And so it was left for £50 million ($97m) signing Neymar to pick up the mantle.

The 21-year-old was deployed on the left wing, and the wunderkind yielded the most oohs and aahs with his sudden bursts of pace and cheeky back-flicks.

And it was Neymar who restored Barca's lead in the 43rd minute after he turned on a six pence to beat K Gurusamy and sent the ball into the corner.

But it was clear from the 45 minutes he played that he still needs more time before forming a telepathic understanding with Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas.

More than once, his cut-backs from the byeline failed to find a teammate and a promising attack was thwarted.

Man-of-the-Match Pique brought his team's Asian Tour tally to 10 goals with a powerful 74thminute shot, but whenever there was break in play, "Messi! Messi! Messi!" was the loud refrain, although they failed to will him away from the bench.

In the dying minutes, Fabregas limped off and hobbled awkwardly to the dressing room to add to the Spanish champions' injury woes that also include Pedro Rodriguez.

Based on their recent performances, Neymar will definitely improve to be a vital cog in the Barca attack alongside Fabregas and Pedro.

But it will be the fitness of Messi that coach Gerardo Martino will most likely lose sleep over.

MALAYSIA: Khairul Fahmi Che Mat (Farizal Marlias 46), Mahalli Jasuli (Nik Shahrul Azim 69), Aidil Zafuan (Putera Nadher Amarhan 80), Fadhli Shas, Asraruddin Putra Omar (Nazrin Nawi 90+2), Wan Zack Haikal (Christie Jayaseelan 69), K Gurusamy (Nazmi Faiz 62), Safiq Rahim (K Reuben 90+2), S Kunanlan, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha (Safee Sali 69), Amri Yahyah (Shakir Shaari 77)

BARCELONA: Victor Valdes (Jose Manuel Pinto 62), Dani Alves (Martin Montoya 46), Gerard Pique (Marc Batra 83), Javier Mascherano (Frank Bagnack 80), Jordi Alba (Adriano 46), Sergio Busquets (Alex Song 62), Xavi Hernandez (Sergi Roberto 62), Andres Iniesta (Jonathan dos Santos 62), Neymar (Cristian Tello 46), Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas (Dongou 83)

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