Messi facing lengthy suspension for hitting opponent

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MADRID — After losing the Spanish Super Cup final, Barcelona is also in danger of losing Lionel Messi for an extended period after he hit an opponent toward the end of the match.

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Messi could be suspended for up to 12 games for the red card he received in the final minutes of his team’s 3-2 loss to Athletic Bilbao in Seville on Sunday.

After passing the ball out to the left flank, Messi swung his right arm toward the head of Athletic forward Asier Villalibre as they ran forward toward the box. Villalibre immediately fell to the ground and Messi was given his first red card in 753 appearances for Barcelona.

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Referee Gil Manzano said in his match report that Messi hit his opponent with “excessive force” while the ball was not near him.

The Spanish soccer federation’s competitions committee will decide on the charges against Messi, and the player’s eventual suspension could range from one to three matches or from four to 12 matches, depending on how severe the federation considers the incident.

Barcelona was already preparing its defense regardless of the charges that would be presented by the federation against its player.

If found guilty, Messi will be suspended for matches in the Spanish league or the Copa del Rey. Barcelona is in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey and trails Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the league.

Messi was visibly frustrated as the match went on and Barcelona struggled to recover from its deficit against Athletic. The Catalan club twice relinquished leads, including conceding a 90th-minute equalizer scored by Villalibre. Antoine Griezmann scored both Barcelona goals, with Messi assisting in the first one.

The defeat cost Barcelona a chance to end a title drought that has lingered from last season, the club’s first without a title since 2007-08.

While it was Messi’s first red card for his club, he has been sent off twice while playing for Argentina’s national team, including a few seconds into his debut in a friendly against Hungary in 2005. The other time was in the 2019 Copa America in a match against Chile. He was also sent off once while playing for Barcelona’s “B” team.

Messi, who asked to leave the club in the offseason but had his request denied, is having an average season compared to previous years, having scored 14 goals in 22 matches with Barcelona. He was far from his best on Sunday despite helping set up the team’s first goal.

Messi had been doubtful to play in the final because of an unspecified fitness issue that had caused coach Ronald Koeman to leave him out of the semifinal against Real Sociedad on Wednesday, when Barcelona prevailed in a penalty shootout.

Barcelona’s next match is on Thursday at Cornella in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey.