MADRID — Looking desolate, Lionel Messi sat on the ground and slowly began rolling down his socks, knowing his night was over. Barcelona fans in the stands could not hide their apprehension, sensing the team’s biggest star was in trouble.

Messi had just pulled a muscle in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, and tests showed he will be sidelined for three weeks with a groin strain.

Although the injury leaves Barcelona facing the difficult task of playing without the star midfielder, it has no need to panic. The Catalan club has coped extremely well recently when playing without Messi, who was out for nearly two months last year with a knee injury.

In the nine games he missed from September through November, Barcelona won seven, drawing one and losing another — a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla. Coach Luis Enrique’s team outscored opponents 21-6 as Neymar and Luis Suarez stepped up to make up for their teammate’s absence. The two scored 18 goals between them with Messi sidelined.

“Last year, Messi had an even longer injury and we overcame it,” said Luis Enrique, whose team still went on to win the Spanish league.

Messi won’t play in at least three games — at Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo in the Spanish league, and at Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League. He is certain to miss Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers against Peru on Oct. 6 and Paraguay on Oct. 11.

“We try to take care of him, but it’s complicated with this calendar,” Luis Enrique said.

The coach said Barcelona will remain “strong enough” without Messi but admitted that he will have to “look for different solutions.”

The midfielder, who got hurt while sprinting for the ball in the 58th minute, was replaced by Arda Turan, who will be the likely starter in the next three games. Turan had also played when Neymar was away with Brazil during the Summer Olympics.

Luis Enrique could also replace Messi with midfielder Rafinha, giving more freedom up front to Neymar and Suarez, or with newly signed forward Paco Alcacer, which would change the team’s tactics. The coach may also pick between midfielders Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes.

Barcelona trails Real Madrid by three points after five rounds in the Spanish league. It leads Group C in the Champions League thanks to its 7-0 rout of Celtic in the opener on Sept. 13 — a game in which Messi scored three goals.

If Messi recovers within the timeframe given by the team, he will be back in time for the highly anticipated Champions League match against Manchester City on Oct. 19.

Messi had already endured similar injury problems earlier this season. He hurt a muscle while playing for Barcelona in the Spanish league and had a groin problem that kept him from playing for Argentina in a World Cup qualifier.

He has scored eight goals with Barcelona this season.


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni