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ARGENTINA’S PAIN IS BARCELONA’S GAIN AS LIONEL MESSI RETURNS FOR THE SPANISH CHAMPIONS

MADRID
Argentina’s pain is Barcelona’s gain
as Lionel Messi returns for the Spanish champions when Deportivo la Coruna
visit the Camp Nou on Saturday after being sidelined for three weeks with a
groin injury.

Messi missed Argentina’s World Cup
qualifiers against Peru and Paraguay as La Albiceleste’s struggles without the
five-time World Player of the Year continued, putting at risk their place at
the 2018 World Cup.

However, international breaks have
traditionally caused Barca trouble too with lethargic performances on their
return to La Liga action coming to be known as the “Fifa virus.”

Barca boss Luis Enrique paid a heavy
price for leaving Messi and Luis Suarez on the bench for a shock 2-1 home
defeat to Alaves after September’s international break.

However, with a blockbuster
Champions League clash against former Barca coach Pep Guardiola’s Manchester
City to come on Wednesday, Enrique could roll the dice with his selection once
more.

Messi is expected to be eased back
into action as a second-half substitute. 

Meanwhile, Suarez could make way for
Paco Alcacer having played twice for Uruguay in the past week.

Neymar will definitely start as he returned
to the Catalan capital early due to his suspension for Brazil’s 2-0 win at
Venezuela on Tuesday.

A 4-3 defeat to Celta Vigo two weeks
ago leaves Barca only fourth in the table.

However, they trail leaders Atletico
Madrid and Real Madrid by just two points and can go temporarily at least to
the top of the table with victory before the sides from the capital kick-off
later on Saturday.

BETIS BOUNCEBACK

Real face the toughest task on paper
of the title contenders as they travel to Real Betis aiming to snap a streak of
four consecutive draws.

Zinedine Zidane’s men also having a
mounting injury crisis as captain Sergio Ramos is set to be sidelined for up to
six weeks by a knee sprain suffered in Spain’s 2-0 win at Albania in midweek.

Luka Modric is also out for the rest
of the month due to knee surgery, whilst influential holding midfielder
Casemiro is missing due to a fractured fibia.

“This match is very important
for us to say – ‘we’re still there’,” said midfielder Toni Kroos after
penning a new contract until 2022 on Thursday.
“Having a string of draws is not a good thing.
“Maybe during the second half
against Eibar (1-1) we didn’t play well and the criticisms were justified. 

“But in Dortmund (2-2) or Las
Palmas (2-2) we clearly played well, even better perhaps than certain matches
which we won.”

Atletico were the form team before
the international break with six wins and a draw at the Camp Nou in their last
seven games taking Diego Simeone’s men to the top of the table on goal
difference.

By contrast, winless Granada travel
to the capital with just two points so far this season and having already
sacked coach Paco Jemez.

The Andalusians have turned to Lucas
Alcaraz for his third spell in charge of the club to lead them to safety.

However, anything other than defeat
would be a huge surprise at the Vicente Calderon as Atletico have kept seven
clean sheets in their last eight games and boast La Liga’s top scorer in
Antoine Griezmann up front.

Third-placed Sevilla also have the
chance to go top for at least a few hours when they visit Leganes on Saturday
lunchtime.

To do so, though, Sevilla need to
end a 22-game streak stretching back 17 months without a La Liga win away from
home.

FIXTURES (all times in EAT)

Friday
Las Palmas v Espanyol (9.45pm)

Saturday
Leganes v Sevilla (2pm), Barcelona v
Deportivo la Coruna (5.15pm), Atletico Madrid v Granada (7.30pm), Real Betis v
Real Madrid (9.45pm)

Sunday
Alaves v Malaga (1pm), Athletic
Bilbao v Real Sociedad (5.15pm), Sporting Gijon v Valencia (7.30pm), Villarreal
v Celta Vigo (9.45pm)

Monday
Eibar v Osasuna (9.45pm).

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