After losing Lionel Messi for two months with a serious knee injury, Barcelona are now looking at a difficult time without its best player. Sure, the team is still very good, but has had a shaky beginning to this season, and surviving the stretch of 8-10 games without Leo will be crucial for a successful campaign once the Argentine returns.
We take a look at what the schedule looks like for the Blaugrana during the absence of the greatest footballer on Earth.
The Big Ones
Bayer Leverkusen (home, September 29th), Sevilla (A, 10/3), Real Madrid (A, 11/21)
These are the games where Leo's absence will certainly be felt the most. On Tuesday, Bayer Leverkusen come to Camp Nou for Matchday 2 of the UEFA Champions League group stage, and after a draw against Roma in the competition opener two weeks ago, the Blaugrana really need a victory to solidify themselves as the group favorites. Leverkusen won their opener, and could win the group if they get a victory at Camp Nou. It will be the first match without Messi, and it's important to show strength against a tough opponent.
Four days after that, and before the next international break, a trip to the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuán for a historically tough game against Sevilla. The Rojiblancos have had a terrible start to the season, but they took Barça to overtime in the UEFA Supercup last month in a memorable 5-4 game, and they will be really difficult playing at home. Leo is usually decisive in games against the Seville side, and alternatives are necessary to cope with his absence and leave Andalusia with a win.
And then there's El Clásico. Remember that the two-month timetable is set before Messi has even began his rehabilitation period. The match at Santiago Bernabéu happens exactly at the eight-week mark, so there is a slight chance that Leo is medically cleared for the first encounter with Real Madrid this season. But even if he does, he'll certainly be far away from match fitness, which means he won't be as effective. The last time around at Bernabéu, Messi also wasn't effective because of a little injury problem, and the Blaugrana were steamrolled by Los Blancos. History doesn't help.
The Slippery Slopes
Rayo Vallecano (H, 10/17), Villarreal (H, 11/8), Getafe (A, 11/1)
These are games that aren't in the same category as the ones above in terms of difficulty, but feature opponents who are more than capable of making the Messi-less life hard for Barça. Rayo is so much fun to watch, Paco Jémez is one of the best, most appealing managers in La Liga, and the Franjirrojos had two tough games with the Blaugranes last season. Barça will be favored to win this one, but will face a very good team.
This is also the case with Villarreal, the current Spanish League leaders. It was a tough decision to put this game below the three above in terms of importance, but that's just because the Yellow Submarine isn't a true title contender. They've had a sensational start to the season, and they just beat Atlético Madrid to remain at the top of the table after six matches. But since we're 45 days away from the clash with Barça, it's safe to assume they won't be the leaders after 11 games. Still, they are where they are right now for a reason, and the Catalans will need to work hard to get a dub without Messi.
Finally, Getafe in Madrid. This in theory is an easy game, but the fact that it is a match on the road at a venue where Barça has had a tough time recently suggests that the Azulones will force Barça to be at its best, and that will be tough with Leo not present.
The Easy Ones
Eibar (H, 10/25), BATE Borisov (A, 10/20), BATE Borisov (H, 11/4)
These are the games in which Barça are so much better that Luis Enrique could afford to rest Messi even if he was healthy and the team was probably going to win anyway. While Eibar won their first two games, they're now on a four-match winless streak, and they seem on the way down the table for their usual fight against relegation. Plus, the match is at Camp Nou, which favors Barça even more.
Same case with the Champions League clashes with BATE Borisov, the famous UCL Punching Bag. Barça will face them two straight times in European Cup duty, which means that six points could be enough to secure a spot in the knockout rounds early in the group stage. The game in Belarus will probably be a little harder than the one at Camp Nou, but there's no reason to think Messi's absence will be enough to make Barça lose to one of the weakest sides in this year's competition.
The Question Mark
AS Roma (H, 11/24)
This is a Champions League game right after El Clásico, expected to be the one that marks Messi's return to the pitch. It's at Camp Nou, and the Blaugrana could be really close to qualifying or even winning the group, which would be the perfect scenario for Leo to come back. However, we don't know how Messi's recovery will go, so we can't know for sure if this will be his official date to return.