Messi's potential absence shouldn't deter Barcelona against Celta
Barcelona will travel to Vigo in order to face Celta in round 29 of La Liga on Sunday. While the club currently sits four points ahead of historical rivals Real Madrid at the top of the table, anything but giving the upcoming match their full attention could prove to be a costly mistake.
Celta are currently 11th in the league, actually closer to challenging for European places than fighting their way out of the relegation battle. Their relatively comfortable position directly responds to the attractive style of football proposed by their manager, former Argentinean international Eduardo Berizzo. When Celta managed to walk away with a 1-0 victory at the Camp Nou earlier in the season, it was definitely thanks to their ambitious approach.
As a result, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique must ensure that all of his players are mentally prepared for a challenging evening in Galicia. The Catalan club's superiority in terms of budget and status in world football will count for nothing once the ball starts rolling, even more so considering the fact that most of Barcelona's key players have spent the vast majority of the past fortnight defending their national colours all around the globe.
As usual, Lionel Messi will be the main attraction for fans attending the game. On this occasion, however, it is not clear whether the talented Argentinean will be able to feature due to a swollen foot.
While it is believed the injury was actually caused by a Martin Demichelis tackle during the clash against Manchester City, Barcelona fans are concerned by how slow his recovery has been over the past fortnight. In addition, touring around the United States with his national team despite not taking part in any games was not helpful from a strictly sporting perspective.
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Fortunately, Messi was able to jog slightly after his return to Catalunya on Thursday and actually joined the rest of the Barcelona squad the following day, a reassuring sign that suggests his journey to recovery may be complete sooner than expected.
If the No. 10 is declared fully fit before the team travels to Vigo, he would more than likely be included in Luis Enrique's starting XI given his very meticulous obsession with playing every single minute in every single game if remotely fit enough to do so.
However, the Asturian manager should carefully decide whether taking a risk on Sunday is actually necessary, especially considering that resting his star player in this particular game would pretty much ensure he is fully fit for the other seven matches Barca are scheduled to play in April.
World-class forwards Neymar and Luis Suarez are both expected to start and take the goal-scoring responsibility off Messi if the Argentinean is unable to take part in the game. While Messi would obviously be dearly missed, witnessing the other two South American stars combining without the undisputed leader of Barcelona's attack would be hugely interesting.
Moreover, it is important to highlight that the many positive results Barcelona have achieved so far this season are a consequence of their more robust approach as a team, The Catalans are now a thoroughly cohesive unit that has slowly but surely improved on a weekly basis. While having supremely gifted individuals up front obviously helps, the more robust attitude at both ends of the pitch has been the main difference so far.
The busy schedule ahead will most definitely mean that Luis Enrique will have no option but to rotate his squad significantly during the next four weeks, allowing much-needed rest to key players who must still be fresh enough to perform at their best in crucial games to be played in two months' time.
With that in mind, non-regulars such as Pedro, Xavi, Marc Bartra, Adriano or Rafinha should have an even more important role to play for the overall benefit of the team during this period. With their club futures on the line, it is certainly time for those who haven't enjoyed as much playing time as they would have hoped for to battle for more involvement in the starting XI in the crucial final third of the season.
The game against Celta will also see the return of Luis Enrique to the Estadio de Balaídos, where he led the team to a praiseworthy ninth-place finish last season. While the Asturian manager is not one for enjoying being the centre of attention, it is expected that the home fans will recognise his very successful year of service and receive their former leader with a mixture of respect and admiration -- before the ball starts rolling, of course.
Despite much of the talk in the Catalan media being focused on ongoing legal battles, the upcoming presidential election, the clash against high-calibre rivals Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals or even the possibility of winning the treble, none of that will truly matter once the ball starts rolling on Sunday.
While an away match at Celta may not be the most glamorous of occasions on paper, failure to grab the three points could have devastating consequences in coming weeks.
The quote: "We know that every game we play in the league can affect the standings and this Sunday we have a difficult opponent. The fact that Celta won at Camp Nou makes us look at it from another point of view. We have to be vigilant, but above all we must rely on our own play.
"Messi? He looked good to me. He ran a little and worked out on the side because of the trip. The team's fine and eager for Sunday's game. We always hope everyone is healthy but it's more about the group rather than individuals" -- Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo