Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has been working hard to regain fitness in time for Saturday’s El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid. With the core of the Barça team away on international duty, coach Luis Enrique gave the four-time World Player of the Year, along with the rest of the remaining members of the squad, the weekend off.
But Messi chose to spend his Friday training with the Barça B team in an effort to further speed his progress toward regaining match fitness.
Messi has been out of action since September with a knee ligament injury. In his absence, teammates Luis Suarez and Neymar have done a dutiful job of carrying the mantle.
Suarez, somewhat ironically, is benefiting from his international suspension, at least at club level: Still in the midst of a nine-match international ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, the Uruguayan has been able to recharge his batteries during the international break. With 13 goals and seven assists in 17 matches this season, the former Liverpool and Ajax man should be well rested and in good shape ahead of Saturday’s clash.
But it is Neymar, more than Suarez, who has truly emerged as Barça’s focal point in Messi’s absence. The Brazilian has accrued the same number of goals and assists as Suarez while playing three fewer matches. The Brazilian has been taking more touches of the ball, hitting the target more often, and scoring more of the sorts of brilliant solo goals we often see him net for his national team.
Currently on World Cup qualifier duty with Brazil, the former Santos man is expected to return to the Catalan capital on Wednesday and to be rested until Friday.
The core of the Barcelona team, meanwhile, remains on international duty with Spain this week: Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Marc Bartra, Jordi Alba, Andres Iniesta all saw action in the friendly against England Friday. Reports suggest, however, that Spain coach Vicente del Bosque plans to rest the Barcelona players against Belgium on Tuesday.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique has announced five training sessions this week ahead of the Clasico. While Monday and Tuesday’s sessions will take place with a reduced pool of players, Enrique is expected to gradually funnel the players returning from international duty back into the mix as the week progresses.
Although it’s still relatively early in the season, the stakes heading into the Clasico are high. If Barça wins, they could extend their lead at the top to seven points. If they lose, they could see it cut to just one or two. Statistically, the two clubs are pulling just about even this season.
Real Madrid, of course, has home-field advantage, but they have been ravaged by injuries and have suffered from sporadic form of late, losing their last league outing 3-2 to Sevilla.
With Messi on the mend, Barça are short just two first-team regular starters, in Rafinha Alcantara and Ivan Rakitic.
As the clock ticks down to match day, there’s a growing sense that Barcelona is the slight favorite, despite their away team status, and the question marks hanging over Messi. Even if he’s just fit enough to make the bench, having the option of being able to deploy Messi will give Barça a further psychological edge over their stuttering rivals. But this is the Clasico, and as they say about all derbies, you can generally throw the formbook out the window. A struggling Real Madrid with something to prove could be as dangerous as a wounded animal in footballing terms.
Despite the gathering winds at Barcelona’s back and the good news regarding Messi’s potential return, Luis Enrique’s men must temper their optimism with caution.