Gerardo Martino says Lionel Messi should be fine to start Barcelona's Champions League group game at AC Milan on Tuesday night, while suggesting he hoped Mario Balotelli would not be available for the game.
Messi returned from a thigh injury to play just 20 minutes in Barca’s goalless draw at Osasuna on Saturday, while Balotelli missed Milan's 1-0 victory over Udinese with a calf injury on the same night.
Martino said he had decided against throwing Messi in from the start last weekend but his brief run-out had helped the player recover.
“We did not want to risk him from the start,” he said. “He recovered much more quickly than we thought -- it was expected he would only be back in training this week -- so we thought it most prudent to give him just some minutes in Pamplona so he would feel better ahead of the games coming up now. He has the medical all-clear, so the risks are the same as with any other player.”
Martino said that the supporters might be happier than the Barca camp if Balotelli, who has been included in Milan’s squad for the game, is passed fit to play.
“I could give you two answers -- one from our point of view and one from the perspective of the fans,” he said when questioned about the former Manchester City attacker. “When stars do not play it is bad for the fans, but good for the opposition players.”
Martino now has almost a full squad to choose from, with left-back Jordi Alba now the only senior absentee as Barca head into the game against Milan and then Saturday’s La Liga clash with Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.
Catalan pundits have suggested that Cesc Fabregas might be the biggest name to miss out when Martino puts out his ‘gala XI’, with Messi partnered by Neymar and Alexis Sanchez in attack, and Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquest manning the three midfield spots.
But the Argentine coach suggested that, despite the importance of the two fixtures, he could continue his rotation policy this week as his main focus remains arriving at the end of the season with everyone in the best condition possible.
“We understand our game as very difficult,” he said. “We are coming from a good performance without a win, obviously our worst result of the season, but one which put us top of the table. We want to back that up with a good result tomorrow.
“This is a week of important games, but it will not determine anything. It is still very soon to think about the end of the rotations. The idea is for the players to be right for the end of the season. I have thought about rotations since the start of the season -- it is too early yet to make any final analysis.”
Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano sat out Saturday’s draw at Osasuna but are available to start against Milan if required.
“When you call up a player to the squad it is because he is ready to play,” Martino said. “I said it last week about [Carles] Puyol, and it is the same today about Javier and Pique, who could have played against Osasuna. I look for risks -- and try to protect the players.”
Whether Balotelli played or not, it will be important for Barca not to give Milan a chance to hit them on the break, Martino said.
“Above all when you play Italian teams, it is important not to give up chances on the break, as that is where they can be most dangerous,” he said. “If we get a positive result tomorrow, we will have practically sealed progress to the next round.”