Barcelona kick off 2014 with the visit of Elche to the Camp Nou on Sunday, boosted by the return to training of Lionel Messi.
The Argentine talisman has been absent since tearing his hamstring against Real Betis on November 10, but returned from Buenos Aires and took part in training in Barcelona on Thursday. Coach Gerardo Martino spoke of his pleasure at witnessing the condition in which Messi has returned, although confirmed that he would not be rushed back into action in Barcelona’s first match of the new year.
“He has come back in very good shape, he has had three very good training sessions,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “We already knew how he had ended the year in training in Argentina. He needs to get back into the rhythm of training with his team-mates and he needs more work with the ball. We’ll see when he’s ready to play as things progress. He’s in good shape.”
“He looks up for it, he looks very good physically, with that killer look in his eyes,” he added. “If he is in that shape, if he feels good and above all confident -- let’s not forget he’s coming back from a significant injury -- we have a player who can bring what everyone knows Leo can bring."
Barcelona will be focused on having Messi back as close to full fitness as possible for their top-of-the-table clash with Atletico Madrid next Saturday. The two sides began 2014 level on points, with Atletico’s win at Malaga on Saturday meaning that Barcelona need a victory of their own to move back to the summit going into their highly anticipated head to head. But before that they will have to avoid any slipups against Elche, while also having to negotiate the first leg of their Copa del Rey last-16 tie at home to Getafe on Wednesday. And Martino is keen for Barcelona not to get ahead of themselves.
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“I should maybe answer this [question about the Atletico match] next week, because we have another two coming up,” he explained. “We have to win against Elche and Getafe; that’ll give us confidence and then we can think about Atletico Madrid. We have experience of playing them in the Supercopa de Espana and it probably won’t be very different.”
While they won’t have Messi, Barcelona will be bolstered on Sunday by the return from injury of goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who has been out since November. Xavi has recovered from a minor problem, but Dani Alves misses out after suffering from a fever. Sergio Busquets is suspended.
Barcelona will face an Elche side who are on the back of three-straight defeats in La Liga. The side who finished as champions of the Segunda Division last season are now just two points above the relegation zone. Fran Escriba’s side have, though, won more points away from home than on their own turf this season.
Where to watch: The Spanish Primera Division clash will kick off at 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sport, with a live stream provided by beIN Sport Play.