Madrid – Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino has insisted that he will not rush Lionel Messi back into action for the Catalans' top of the table clash against Atletico Madrid next weekend.
Messi hasn't played since tearing his hamstring against Real Betis in early November and watched on from the stands as Barca moved back to the top of La Liga with a 4-0 win over Elche on Sunday.
However, the Argentine has returned to training and could feature at some point either at home to Getafe in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday or three days later against Atletico at the Vicente Calderon.
Martino, though, maintained he will only recall the four-time World Player of the Year once he is fully ready both physically and mentally to return.
“Whether he plays in one of the games this week depends on how he feels,” said Martino.
“He has to be ready not just physically but also mentally. It always takes players a while to mentally recover from an injury and I think that is the most important thing right now because physically he looks good.
“What we will never do is play him when he is not ready. We would not risk his fitness, nor the team. He has made a great effort to get into the shape he is in now and we just need to have a little more patience.
“We know the importance of the game and how well Atletico are playing. They are a team that is ready to win big things, but that doesn't change our perspective in only selecting the players that are in the right condition to play the game.”
Despite Messi's absence, Martino also rested Neymar from the start against Elche and was rewarded for his faith in Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez as they combined for all four of Barca's goals, with Sanchez claiming his first hat-trick for the club.
Given the competition for places and with Messi and Victor Valdes returning from serious injuries, Martino is happy that Barcelona are beginning to find their groove at such a crucial period of the season.
“We are in good form but there is still plenty of room for improvement. We are in a part of the year where the games are decisive. One bad game can mean you are out of the Champions League or the Copa del Rey.
“I believe that we will get to the end of the season in better shape than last year. Last season the team suffered a lot of unfortunate injuries towards the end of the season.
“We obviously cannot assure that won't happen, but I have the feeling and the expectation that our best form is still to come.” – Sapa-AFP