New Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino said his surprise substitution of Leo Messi during Sunday’s 7-0 victory over Levante in the Primera Division opener was part of a plan to ensure that he manages his fitness during the season.
Messi was keen to play every minute of every game under previous bosses Josep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, but was withdrawn with 20 minutes remaining and replaced by Andres Iniesta.
In quotes reported by Barca's official website, Martino told reporters the change had been agreed in advance and was part of a plan to keep his star man in top condition for more important matches later in the campaign.
“We have talked to Messi from the beginning,” he explained. “The season is long, and this way he can rest if he does not play every minute in a couple of matches.
“We came to an agreement quickly. Agreeing on substitutions beforehand is a complicated matter. No one would ever take Messi out of a match if the teams are evenly matched. But it can be done in matches where we take a big lead. This way, he can preserve his fitness.”
Messi scored twice against a woeful Levante, but his most telling contribution may have been to pressurise defender David Navarro and steal the ball in the build-up to Barca’s third goal, tapped in by Dani Alves with just 23 minutes gone.
Martino has said he wants Barca to rediscover the high-tempo pressing that Guardiola instilled in the team, and praised Messi for leading this by defending from the front.
“When Messi starts the pressure, our opponents see that he is trying to win possession back,” the former Newell’s Old Boys boss said. “Hopefully he can do this on a regular basis and his team-mates follow him.
"These ideas are not new for the players, they were just saved and stored away. One of the aspects we have insisted on the most is pressure. I am very satisfied.”
Martino left €57 million summer signing Neymar on the bench -- a decision that was part of a plan to gradually introduce the Brazilian, who lost weight during the summer following a tonsil operation, to the starting XI.
“Everyone wants to see Neymar and Messi play together,” he added. “I want him to adapt to the team quickly, but I do not want to force anything. We will see his best form shortly. This is how I see it. It is my decision.”