Foot­ball: Boys are back in town with Messi and Umtiti re­turn­ing for Barca

Messi should start af­ter in­jury lay­off as winger is axed amid dis­ci­pline is­sues

Sport360 - - Front Page - By Andy West @andy­west01 ✉ ed­i­to­rial@sport360.com

Barcelona will at­tempt to pro­tect their three-point lead at the top of La Liga by over­com­ing Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sun­day af­ter­noon, and a cer­tain some­one is avail­able to aid their cause af­ter be­ing passed fit fol­low­ing in­jury. Let’s take a look at the big is­sues ahead of what should be an at­trac­tive game.

Messi and Umtiti back... but will they start?

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde is able to wel­come back two key play­ers, with Lionel Messi and Sa­muel Umtiti re­turn­ing af­ter three and six weeks out re­spec­tively.

Of the two, Messi is the most likely to start. The na­ture of his in­jury – a frac­tured arm – means that he was able to main­tain his gen­eral fit­ness dur­ing his rel­a­tively short spell on the side­lines, and Valverde has also em­pha­sised that his cap­tain does not have any men­tal is­sues with the in­jury in terms of feel­ing the need to pro­tect him­self or avoid a fall.

With the in­ter­na­tional break com­ing up, there would be lit­tle sense in se­lect­ing Messi in the squad if he wasn’t go­ing to start, so we can ex­pect to see the Ar­gen­tine lin­ing up along­side red-hot Luis Suarez, who has five goals in his last two games.

Umtiti’s case is some­what dif­fer­ent. He has been out for much longer, and his knee in­jury pre­vented him from taking part in any mean­ing­ful train­ing for a num­ber of weeks so his match fit­ness is lack­ing. With fel­low French­man Cle­ment Len­glet per­form­ing per­fectly well along­side the rejuvenated Ger­ard Pique in the heart of de­fence, there’s no need to rush Umtiti back too quickly and he will prob­a­bly have to wait un­til af­ter the in­ter­na­tional break to re­turn to ac­tion.

Who fills void on the left?

Messi’s like­li­hood of start­ing is even greater con­sid­er­ing the fact that both Philippe Coutinho and Ous­mane Dem­bele have been omit­ted from the squad, leav­ing Valverde short of at­tack­ing op­tions.

Coutinho is out for two or three weeks with a ham­string strain, but Dem­bele’s sit­u­a­tion has been at­tract­ing far more at­ten­tion af­ter the French­man missed two days of train­ing through ill­ness and re­port­edly ini­tially failed to no­tify the club of his ab­sence promptly enough. Valverde did noth­ing to dis­pel the no­tion that Dem­bele has been ex­cluded from this game as a dis­ci­plinary mea­sure, and the lo­cal me­dia is re­port­ing that the club’s pa­tience with the French winger is be­ing tested to the limit.

What­ever will hap­pen with Dem­bele in the long-term re­mains to be seen, but for the short-term it leaves Valverde with a se­lec­tion dilemma be­cause he has no nat­u­ral op­tion for the left-sided at­tack­ing role. Mu­nir El Had­dadi, Rafinha or mid­week goalscorer Mal­com could be asked to fill an un­fa­mil­iar role on the left of Barca’s front three along­side Messi and Suarez, with fringe play­ers Denis Suarez and Car­los Alena pro­vid­ing other op­tions.

Valverde could also give a start­ing spot to Ar­turo Vidal, field­ing ei­ther the vet­eran Chilean or Ivan Rakitic on the left-hand side of a nar­row mid­field four.

Betis feel the af­ter-af­fects?

Valverde’s ap­proach to the game will be fur­ther con­di­tioned by the unique play­ing style of vis­it­ing Betis, who are ar­guably the strong­est pro­po­nents of purist pass­ing prin­ci­ples in La Liga.

Man­ager Quique Se­tien, who has been linked with a fu­ture move to the Camp Nou, is wed­ded to a 3-43 for­ma­tion with a de­ter­mined in­sis­tence upon pass­ing out from the back and play­ing through mid­field, creat­ing a team which is al­ways en­joy­able to watch but of­ten lacks cutting edge. The big­gest ques­tion fac­ing Betis for this en­counter is whether they will be pre­pared to take on the league lead­ers, just three days af­ter go­ing toe to toe with AC Mi­lan in an emo­tion­al­ly­charged Europa League con­test.

The game, which fin­ished with a 1-1 draw, was treated far more se­ri­ously than most games in that com­pe­ti­tion by Betis fans and Se­tien, who picked a full-strength eleven rather than in­dulging in squad ro­ta­tions as gen­er­ally hap­pens in the Europa League group stage.

Find­ing the men­tal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional en­ergy for an­other high­pro­file oc­ca­sion less than 72 hours later is a ma­jor chal­lenge for Betis, and it wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing if their re­cent ex­er­tions catch up with them in the sec­ond half.

Look who is back: Lionel Messi is in line to start against Real Betis af­ter in­jur­ing his el­bow.

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