Messi will face Athletic if he is ready, says Valverde
The Argentine was unable to start in Wednesday’s Copa Clasico, but his coach believes he has a chance of making the cut this weekend
Lionel Messi could face Athletic Bilbao on Sunday if he feels fully fit, Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde says.
The Argentina star was only fit enough to appear as a second-half substitute of the 1-1 Copa del Rey draw with Real Madrid on Wednesday, having been battling a thigh injury.
Valverde is still wary of taking unnecessary risks, especially with a Champions League last-16 first leg against Lyon to come on February 19, but he hopes to have Messi available.
“As always, we have to wait to make a decision,” he told a news conference on Saturday. “We didn’t want to take a risk the other day and we’re in a similar situation [on Sunday].
“He’s okay, but if he were at 100 per cent, as he has been at other times, he’d play. If he’s okay, he’ll play, and if not, we’ll have to make a decision.”
Barca head to San Mames without midfielder Arthur, who is expected to miss most of the next month with a hamstring injury.
However, Valverde believes he has strong options for central midfield, including Philippe Coutinho, whose form has been under intense recent scrutiny.
“[With Arthur] we’re losing a player who gives us control of the game, but injuries always come like that,” he said. “We have alternatives. We have [Carles] Alena, who is more attacking; Arturo [Vidal] has an attacking edge, but less control. It depends on the game.
“Coutinho is a possibility in terms of how we decide the match.”
Valverde does hope to have Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembele fully fit soon, with the defender having missed large stretches of the 2018-19 season through injury.
Messi and Dembele were both included in Barca’s squad to travel to the Basque Country, while Umtiti remains an absentee.
“Umtiti did the first part of training yesterday and we want him to do more,” he said. “Dembele’s injury isn’t as long. We’ll assess today if he’s okay or not.”
Valverde was again asked to comment on his future, with speculation that he will leave at the end of the season persisting, but he simply said: “When I have an answer, I’ll give it to you.”