Continued from page 1

“I sincerely thought it was the last ball I would be touching for a long time because of the pain. I tried to go ahead and shoot but I didn’t have the strength,” Messi said.

Vilanova said he had no regrets and that it wasn’t the Barca way to molly-coddle its superstar.

“He’s a player that likes to play,” he said. “He’s not focused on breaking the record that everyone is talking about.

“If I had a do-over I’d make the same decision, seeing that he can get injured at any moment.”

The diagnosis for Messi was reassuring: bone bruising to the outside of his left knee. Barca said he did gym work Thursday. Messi had injuries earlier in his Barca career, and was notably left out of the team that won the 2006 Champions League final because of a thigh injury. But more recently he has been remarkably durable _ one reason why he has moved so close to Mueller’s record. Barca said Messi hasn’t missed a game with injury since September 2010, when Atletico Madrid defender Tomas Ujfalusi crunched his ankle in a tackle, damaging ligaments.

Messi has four more games in 2012 to overtake Mueller _ or less if he doesn’t recover for Barca’s league trip Sunday night to Betis.

“It is not an obsession. If it happens, it will happen when it does,” Messi said Thursday. “It would be nice to reach a record that has been there for such a long time. But it is not something that worries me. If I don’t make it, no problem, but I am very close.”

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester