Valverde:  Messi Is ‘100%’ fit despite Athletic draw

Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has said Lionel Messi is fully fit despite recent injury concerns.

The Blaugrana star hobbled out of the 2-2 draw with Valencia in La Liga last Saturday and was on the bench when the team met their bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. On Sunday he was back in the XI for the stalemate with Athletic Bilbao.

Although the forward didn’t appear to be at his absolute best, his manager said fitness isn’t an issue for the 31-year-old.

“He’s at 100 per cent. He played that way,” said Valverde, per Juanma Velasco of Marca. “Leo is fine. We’ve had problems with him, but if he’s played then it’s because he was totally ready to.”

However, the Barcelona assistant manager appeared to contradict the head coach and some of his own words from earlier in the week:

Valverde’s No.2 Aspiazu, who said Messi was 100 percent before the Clasico, now says “maybe he’s not 100 percent but he’s very close to that level.”

For Barcelona supporters it may be a little concerning to see Messi rushed back so quickly ahead of what is set to be a crucial few months for the team.

The Blaugrana now appear to be in a title battle with Real Madrid following recent results, with Los Blancos’ victory over Atletico Madrid seeing them close the gap on Barcelona to just six points at the top of the table.

Despite a disappointing start to the campaign for Madrid, two draws for Barca in their last two La Liga outings have provided fresh impetus to their rivals; Ben Hayward of the Evening Standard thinks Real will now pose a challenge to Barcelona:

Barcelona still in a great position and remain favourites, but lots of people were very dismissive of this yesterday. Real Madrid have momentum and I think they will challenge…

In addition, Barcelona have a second leg of a Copa semi-final against their rivals to play at the Santiago Bernabeu, as well as a UEFA Champions League last-16 clash with Lyon.

Given how important Messi is to the team, it’s imperative he’s in good condition going into this busy spell of matches. After all, this season the Barcelona no. 10 already had 21 goals and 10 assists in La Liga.

After he drew a rare blank against Athletic, Squawka summed up just how consistent Messi has been in front of goal in recent months:

Lionel Messi fails to score or assist having started a game in any competition for the first time since September. The clock resets.

Valverde will be hopeful that some of Barcelona’s other star men can shoulder more attacking responsibility.

Luis Suarez continues to be a fine foil for Messi, and there have been signs this season that Ousmane Dembele is ready to kick on, although he is injured. Philippe Coutinho, the club’s record signing, continues to struggle.

If the manager can draw a little more from those other attacking stars, the heavy burden on Messi will be relieved and Barca’s iconic No. 10 should be able to go into this crunch period in better shape.