Ernesto Valverde insists he will not rush Lionel Messi back before he is ready as Barcelona face up to the prospect of being without their talisman for another week.
Messi has yet to play this campaign after suffering a calf strain during pre-season and is definitely sidelined for Saturday’s visit of Valencia and may also miss Tuesday’s Champions League opener against Borussia Dortmund.
Without their record-breaking forward, Barca have only managed to win one of their opening three La Liga matches, with a 5-2 home victory over Real Betis coming in-between a defeat at Athletic Bilbao and draw with Osasuna.
However, Barca coach Valverde is adamant he will only bring Messi back when he is fit and ready, and says the Argentinian’s absence gives other players in his star-studded squad a chance to shine.
He told a press conference: “Of course Messi’s a very important player for us, I’m not going to deny it, but the team have responded well in other games which he hasn’t played in.
“But he’s a decisive player. He can change games because of how he affects our team and the opposition. He’s the best player in the world.
“We want him back as soon as possible but we want him back at full fitness.
“I don’t know if he will be ready for Tuesday. I don’t want to create any expectations. It’s difficult.”
He added “Missing Leo Messi is always going to be noticed but it means chances and opportunities for other players to step forward. We saw that against Betis.”
The good news for Valverde is that striker Luis Suarez is available again after being absent since the opening-day defeat to Athletic.
The Spanish champions will come up against a familiar face in the Valencia dugout this weekend, with their former midfielder Albert Celades having been appointed Los Che coach on Wednesday.
Barcelona-born Celades, who spent almost a decade on the books of his hometown club before leaving in 1999, took over the reins following the shock sacking of Marcelino.
Like Barca, Valencia have also picked up four points from their opening three games and Celades is hoping they can add to that tally on his return to the Camp Nou.
He said on his club’s website: “Barcelona are a great side. No more needs to be said about Messi, but Barca always give you difficulties, whatever starting XI they field or the changes they make.
“They cause even more problems at their home ground. We know how difficult the game will be, but we are focused on the plan that we have worked on in our two training sessions together. We’ll see if we are capable of competing in the best way possible.
“We will go out there tomorrow in Barcelona with the best mentality, and try to compete against a magnificent side.”
Barcelona will look to get back to winning ways as they host crisis-riven Valencia at the Camp Nou on Saturday night.
The reigning champions have won just one of their opening three games to drop into a mid-table position in the early reckoning, and they badly need the boost of a convincing win ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League trip to Borussia Dortmund.
But it is also an extremely important game for visiting Valencia, whose shock midweek managerial change has left them riding stormy waters as they travel up the coast.
Let’s take a look ahead to what could be an explosive encounter.
VALENCIA IN CRISIS AFTER SHOCK SACKING
For once, Barca are heading into the game in the shadows of the media attention following a crazy week at visitors Valencia, whose manager Marcelino has been fired despite leading the club to consecutive fourth-place finishes and a triumph in last season’s Copa del Rey.
Valencia owner Peter Lim appears to have made the hugely controversial decision to dispense with Marcelino after a series of disagreements over the future direction of the club. Specifically, they fell out over transfer market policy, the use of youth team players and Lim’s demand that the cup should have been sacrificed to place an emphasis on La Liga.
The replacement for Marcelino is also a surprise choice, with former Spain Under 21 coach Albert Celades getting the nod despite having no prior club football management experience.
Celades faces an extremely stiff immediate task of re-motivating a squad which has been left stunned by the departure of the popular Marcelino, and the body language of the Valencia players as they step onto the Camp Nou turf will be fascinating to behold.
Will they come together in an ‘us against the world’ bond, or will they give a message of defiance to their owner by waving a flag of surrender? Either way, Celades will have his coaching debut meticulously scrutinised after a turbulent few days.
DO BARCA HAVE A MESSI PROBLEM?
Barca have also had their own controversies to contend with this week, with skipper Lionel Messi – who will miss this game as he continues to recover from a calf injury – granting a rare interview to a local newspaper and taking the opportunity to express his disappointment over the club’s failure to sign Neymar during the summer.
Although many of the subsequent headlines were overblown, Messi is savvy enough to know exactly the impact of his declarations and will have chosen his words carefully – when speculation was mounting that his club were planning to sign Antoine Griezmann in May, for example, he shut down that line of questioning with a decisive: “I have nothing to say.”
The fact that he chose a more verbose response on this occasion suggests he was fully intending to stir things up, and the question of whether Messi is unhappy at Barca is a valid one to ask. Ultimately, it could just be part of a sparring contest with the board in pursuit of a new contract, something he has not been given for nearly two years. But the state of his internal relationships will continue to be examined – especially if another bad result this weekend renders his absence on the field even more noticeable.
RAKITIC BACK IN FAVOUR?
Manager Ernesto Valverde’s biggest tactical issue is clearly in midfield, where he has experimented with a wide range of personnel and formations during the opening weeks of the season.
Seven different players have already been selected in the opening three league games, with Sergi Roberto and summer signing Frenkie de Jong named in all starting line-ups plus Sergio Busquets, Carles Alenya, Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic also appearing at various stages.
Of those players, the biggest surprise is that Rakitic has only played for 44 minutes so far despite being a virtual ever-present for the last few seasons. Until now, however, the Croatian international has been dogged by repeated rumours that he was being offered to Paris Saint-Germain in part-exchange for Neymar, which could explain his sudden downgrading.
With the transfer window now closed, however, there is no ulterior motive for Valverde to continue to overlook the experienced midfielder. If Rakitic is still on the bench this weekend, the only conclusion could be that he has suffered a permanent demotion for footballing reasons, and in that context Valverde’s configuration of his midfield for this game could have longer-reaching significance.
The Serbian admitted that the Champions League final defeats to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 were two low points for the Red Devils and the Catalan manager’s best use of the Argentine forward was the main reason for Barca’s success.
“Guardiola changed Messi,” Vidic told The Athletic.
“He used to play on the right and had a tendency to cut inside. He was dangerous but predictable.
“Guardiola made him central and he became better. The whole team began to play for him. He runs at defenders with wingers running alongside him. I played against him twice and we lost both times. It’s hard to admit they were the better team, still hard to say and it’s still hard to take.
“We had a great team in 2009. We could’ve done better. We were the European and world champions, Barcelona were more scared of us than we were of them. Beating us gave them more belief. Rome was a tipping point for Guardiola’s Barcelona.”