Barcelona’s South American idols Lionel Messi and Neymar are working around the clock to be ready for Saturday’s Spaniash league table-topper Atletico Madrid.
Messi returned to action in sensational style Wednesday with a late brace in a 4-0 cup win over Getafe, after being out for two months with a hamstring injury.
“He has certainly not forgotten how to play. He has looked good in training, and what he did tonight was wonderful,” Barca’s veteran captain Carles Puyol said.
Neymar missed the Getafe game with a stomach bug but should be fit by Saturday, though he will probably start on the sub’s bench.
In contrast, Messi is likely to start after Wednesday’s late cameo appearance. Coach Gerardo Martino will have to decide whom to drop to make room for the Argentine, which will be a difficult decision given that Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas are all in good form.
Martino will also have to decide whether to bring back veteran Dani Alves at right—back or stick with youngster Martin Montoya.
Barca and Atletico have made their best ever starts, dropping just five points each. They are level at the top, and Saturday’s victor will take the unofficial title of “winter champions” for leading at the halfway stage.
“Atletico are one of the strongest teams in the world at the moment,” said Puyol. “It will be a very difficult game for us.” Atletico coach Diego Simeone is sweating on the fitness of defender Diego Godin, who missed Tuesday’s 1—1 cup draw at Valencia.
One man sure to start for the hosts is young midfielder Koke, who has caught the eye this season with his sharp passing and lethal centres.
“To be ‘winter champions’ is not really important, what matters is how you finish the season. There is still the entire second half of the season left,” Koke said on his 22nd birthday Wednesday.
“We will all have to work hard to contain them, then try to hit them on the break.” Third-placed Real Madrid will be hoping for a draw between the top two, and then to reduce their lead to three points by winning at mid-table Espanyol Sunday.
Veteran midfielder Xabi Alonso, who Wednesday extended his contract until 2016, is doubtful with a perforated eardrum, but Gareth Bale should be fit.
The 19th round of games kicks off Friday with Granada at home to Valladolid.
The other weekend matches are Athletic Bilbao v Almeria, Celta Vigo v Valencia, Elche v Sevilla, Getafe v Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis v Osasuna, Levante v Malaga and Villarreal v Real Sociedad.