Champions League

Messi nears return against Inter

2018-11-05 10:24
Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi (AP)

Barcelona - Lionel Messi could make an earlier return than expected against Inter Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday but Barcelona have hardly missed him.

Four wins out of four, including a stroll past Inter Milan and a hammering of Real Madrid so severe it cost their coach his job, mean Messi reunites with a team enjoying its strongest run of the season, ironically without its star striker.

Barca will certainly be delighted, relieved even, when his recovery is complete. The club have named Messi in their squad for the match at the San Siro, even if he is yet to be given the medical all-clear.

It could be his involvement is either as a substitute or even delayed until Sunday, when Barca host Real Betis in La Liga.

Perhaps it will depend on how much Barca need him and, in that respect, Messi's absence has been less pronounced than many predicted 15 days ago when he tumbled and broke his right arm against Sevilla.

Circumstances have helped. After Inter, came Real, who were in a mess, Cultural Leonesa, who play in Spain's third tier, and Rayo Vallecano, who are 19th in the table. But wins, in any form, cannot be overlooked. Real's against Real Valladolid on Saturday was their first in six league games.

More crucially, key players have delivered while others, less prominent, have stepped up.

Luis Suarez scored twice on Saturday, the second an 89th-minute winner to complete a late comeback against Rayo. After six games without a goal, he has now hit six in his last four.

"We know how many goals Luis and Leo have scored together," Ivan Rakitic said after the match.

"We want Luis to keep this run going, of course, but we're also looking forward to Leo coming back. We know they will score many goals together again."

Racing onto Rakitic's pass and teeing up Suarez to tap in the opener at Vallecas was also Jordi Alba, who has been arguably Barca's best player this season.

Luis Enrique is yet to pick him for Spain but it would be hard to justify ignoring the full-back again when the next squad is announced later this week.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get selected, as I've always done ever since I made my debut with the national team," Alba said. "Under the new coach I'm not being picked but I'm working on it."

Messi's absence opened up a gap to be filled further forward and many expected the chance to be given to the 21-year-old Ousmane Dembele.

Instead, the more diligent Rafinha was named in the starting line-up at home to Inter last month and the Brazilian justified Ernesto Valverde's faith by scoring the opener against the same club he played for on loan only five months ago.

Then, Rafinha's Barca future looked bleak but Valverde's preference carries a clear message to the likes of Dembele and Malcom about the value he places on concentration, pressing off the ball and teamwork.

"Rafinha is a player who moves well between lines," Valverde said after the win over Inter. "He is generous with his effort and today he was very good."

Only last month, the pressure mounting on Valverde was not incomparable to that felt by Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid.

Barca were without a win in four league games and defensive errors looked set to play havoc with their title challenge. Now, they sit four points clear at the top of La Liga and head to Italy on the back of five wins on the bounce.

A draw against Inter will guarantee qualification from Group B while victory would secure top spot, with two games still to spare.

Their chances will be significantly boosted if Messi returns but the last fortnight will perhaps have given Barca greater belief too. If they must, they know they can function without him.

Read more on:    barcelona  |  champions league  |  lionel messi  |  soccer
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Tuesday, 27 November 2018
AEK Athens v Ajax, Olympiako Stadio Spyros Louis 19:55
CSKA Moskva v Viktoria Plzen, Stadion Luzhniki 19:55
Juventus v Valencia, Allianz Stadium 22:00
Bayern Munchen v Benfica, Allianz-Arena 22:00
Olympique Lyonnais v Manchester City, Groupama Stadium 22:00
Manchester United v Young Boys, Old Trafford 22:00
Roma v Real Madrid, Stadio Olimpico 22:00
Hoffenheim v Shakhtar Donetsk, Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena 22:00
Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Atletico Madrid v Monaco, Estadio Wanda Metropolitano 19:55
Lokomotiv Moskva v Galatasaray, RZD Arena 19:55
Porto v Schalke 04, Estadio Do Dragao 22:00
PSG v Liverpool, Parc des Princes 22:00
PSV v Barcelona, Philips Stadion 22:00
Borussia Dortmund v Club Brugge, Signal-Iduna-Park 22:00
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Club Brugge v Atletico Madrid, Jan Breydelstadion 22:00
Monaco v Borussia Dortmund, Stade Louis II 22:00
Internazionale v PSV, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza 22:00
Crvena Zvezda v PSG, Stadion Rajko Mitic 22:00
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Viktoria Plzen v Roma, Doosan Arena 19:55
Real Madrid v CSKA Moskva, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu 19:55
Valencia v Manchester United, Estadio de Mestalla 22:00
Benfica v AEK Athens, Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica (da Luz) 22:00
Manchester City v Hoffenheim, Etihad Stadium 22:00
Ajax v Bayern Munchen, Johan Cruijff ArenA 22:00
Shakhtar Donetsk v Olympique Lyonnais, Oblasny SportKomplex Metalist 22:00
Young Boys v Juventus, STADE DE SUISSE Wankdorf Bern 22:00
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