BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - With his actions, and now words, Lionel Messi is embracing a new role as Barcelona captain.
Messi came off the bench to set up a late equalizer by fellow substitute Munir El Haddadi and salvage a point in a 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
Extremely reticent to talk to the Spanish media in the past, the club’s all-time leading scorer faced the cameras afterward to explain why his team over the last week had secured only two out of a possible nine points in the Spanish league.
Messi acknowledged that Barcelona must improve in defense after it drew 2-2 to Girona and lost 2-1 at Leganes before its latest slip against Bilbao.
“We are angry for this run of results,” Messi said. “We are aware that we have to be stronger in defense and not concede goals in every match. Last year it was very difficult to score against us, and now it doesn’t take much.”
Messi then pointed to Barcelona’s upcoming Champions League trip to Wembley Stadium, where the defending Spanish champions play Harry Kane’s Tottenham in a Group B game.
“Now we must think about Wednesday because we have a very hard match against a very complicated team,” Messi said. “We know we have a lot to improve, but we must stay calm.”
At age 31, Messi is in his 15th season with Barcelona’s first team and has long been the player his teammates turn to for the decisive dribble, pass or goal.
But this campaign he has the added responsibility of wearing the captain’s armband that was handed down by Andres Iniesta after his departure to Japan.
Besides talking to the media, Messi was also the team’s vocal defender on the field. Messi argued long enough with referee Jaime Latre after the final whistle of Saturday’s match where he earned his first booking of the season.
Messi set a record for the Champions League with his eighth career hat trick in the competition two weeks ago when Barcelona routed PSV Eindhoven 4-0 in their European opener.
The team is winless since then, but Messi was quick to reassure fans that Barcelona is not relying too much on his goals.
“We have the squad and players to make a great team that doesn’t depend on one player,” Messi said. “We have more than enough players so that we don’t have to depend on any single one.”
The numbers back him up.
While Messi leads the team with eight goals across all competitions, Ousmane Dembele has scored five goals overall, Luis Suarez three, and Philippe Coutinho and Gerard Pique two each.
Barcelona’s defensive troubles could be magnified in London against Tottenham, with Barca missing half of its starting backline.
Center back Samuel Umtiti will serve a one-game suspension for his sending-off during Barcelona’s win over PSV.
Sergio Roberto, who can play at right back but also in midfield, will miss the upcoming game after he injured a muscle in his right leg over the weekend.
That means Clement Lenglet, who joined the club this summer, will team up with Gerard Pique in the center of the defense, while Nelson Semedo is the squad’s only available right back.
Real Madrid is missing Cristiano Ronaldo.
Madrid started the season well enough, leading some commentators to argue that the team’s collective attack was as dangerous as the huge individual threat once provided by Ronaldo before his exit to Juventus this summer.
But a stinging 3-0 loss at Sevilla and a 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid at home on Saturday have left Madrid searching for the goals that Ronaldo used to produce.
To make matters worse for Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, Madrid has lost three of its top attacking talents ahead of its Group G match on Tuesday at CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.
Gareth Bale, who has scored four goals this season, picked up an unspecified leg injury against Atletico. Left back Marcelo, who often joins the attack, missed the derby due to a muscle injury in his right leg, and midfielder Francisco “Isco” Alarcon underwent surgery for an appendicitis.
Lopetegui has also left Sergio Ramos off his squad for the trip to Moscow, presumably to rest his center back.
“We have to find solutions and put all our faith in our squad,” Lopetegui said after the draw with Atletico.
With Karim Benzema in poor recent form, Mariano Diaz could get more playing time after scoring two weeks ago in Madrid’s 3-0 win over Roma.
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