Barca's Support Cast Show Their Worth as Messi Nears Return Against Inter

AFP
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.

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.