Barcelona coach “Tata” Martino has strongly hinted that Lionel Messi will start on the bench for his side’s top-of-the-table clash with Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday. After a two-month absence with a hamstring injury, Messi returned with a bang on Wednesday as he scored two goals in a 30-minute cameo appearance against Getafe. But, despite the importance of the match between the two sides level on points at top of La Liga, Martino has insisted that no chances will be taken over the Argentine’s fitness.
“He has only just come back after a lengthy period of inactivity and so we’ll assess whether he’s up for playing the full 90 minutes of a game like this,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “He’s in the squad list and I will decide on the day of the game.”
“This game isn’t taking place in April -- we’re halfway through January and I want to be in a position where I have all of my players available for the final run-in when the season is reaching its conclusion”.
“It’s very easy to go on what we saw the other night and forget that he’s spent 60 days on the sidelines. He’s a player who, when he starts a game, he likes to finish it. Sometimes it’s better to pace him and bring him on when the game is underway.”
Barcelona have started 2014 in fine fashion, beating both Elche and Getafe 4-0 in the past week. Neymar was absent last time out due to gastroenteritis and, along with Messi, in in contention to start in what is now a crowded front line, with Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro all having given glowing examples of their credentials in recent weeks.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone has said that he is expecting to have to try and negate the threat of his fellow-Argentine Messi from the start. And while he does not think the match will be decisive in the outcome of the title race, he is still under no illusions about its importance.
“It’s not a final. It’s only a league game,” he said in quotes reported by AS. "It’s a very, very important game but still just a league game like any other. We will be attempting to play our own game and utilize our weapons. We want to put in a similar performance to the one we put in against them in the Super Cup [when they only lost on away goals].”
Despite Atletico’s outstanding start to the season that has seen them lose just once in their first 18 league matches, as well as reaching the knockout phase of the Champions League, the former Atletico midfielder is refusing to start discussing the club’s prospects of lifting the title.
“Since the day arrived, I have always thought the same and when I was a player, I had exactly the same attitude. That was the approach we all had during my second season here when I was still playing [when Atletico last won the championship] and we’d played better football with those beliefs. Right now, we are in a very privileged position in the table and staying there depends on us alone.”
Neither side has any fresh injury worries. Atletico are likely to make one change from their 1-0 victory over Malaga last week, with the midfield tenacity of Gabi set to replace youngster Oliver Torres. Dani Alves is expected to return for Barcelona after his recent injury, while Martino is likely to choose between Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra to partner Gerard Pique in defense, with Carles Puyol unlikely to play two matches in a week after starting against Getafe.
Where to watch: The Spanish Primera Division match will kick off from the Vicente Calderon at 2 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sports, with a live stream available on beIN Sports Play.