Jan 8, 2014, 8:09 PM EDT
Barcelona decided to be cautious on Sunday, withholding Lionel Messi from their 4-0 shelling of Elche. Today, three days before their table-topping clash with Atlético Madrid, the defending La Liga champions rolled out their previously injured star in Spain’s Copa del Rey, with 26 minutes of action showing the Argentine bears little rust from his near-two month layoff.
Seeing his first action since Nov. 10, Messi scored his team’s final two goals as Barcelona went on to claim a 4-0 lead after the home leg of their Round of 32 matchup with Getafe. Building on two goals from Cesc Fábregas, Messi scored in the 90th and 92nd minutes to double his team’s lead, giving Barça a commanding edge ahead of next Thursday’s second leg in Madrid.
But with the much-anticipated matchup at Atlético on Saturday, the news from this match was less about its Copa del Rey implications than what it means for La Liga. Atlético currently sit tied on points with Barcelona atop the Primera, the team’s matching 16-1-1 records meaning goal difference is the only thing separating the two sides. Barcelona’s five-goal edge, however, could be rendered meaningless should they fall at the Vicente Calderón, with the high point-rate each team’s maintained throughout the season adding increasing the stakes of Saturday’s match.
Though Messi had few chances to test his recovered thigh on Wednesday, there was little evidence of any lingering effects. Instead, Messi quickly resumed his goal-scoring ways, finding himself in the right place at the right time near the end of regulation to put a one-timed left footer inside Jordi Codina’s right post.
Two minutes later, Messi scored a goal if his own creation, blitzing through Getafe’s center backs to carrying the ball within 16 yards of goal, eventually beating Cordina with another left-footer to make it 4-0.
After the brace, questions surrounding Messi will be less about whether he can play than how long he can last. A 26-minute run in a low-impact game (Barcelona were dominating) provides little evidence he’s ready to play 90 minutes against Atlético. Gerardo Martino will have to garner that proof on the training ground.
In the meantime, we’re left wondering how much of an impact Messi will make in Saturday’s all-important clash. With Messi one hundred percent, Barcelona were held to 1-1 scoreline over 180 minutes by Atlético in the Spanish Supercopa. If Messi’s less than 100 percent, the likes of Fábregas, Alexis Sánchez, and Pedro Rodríguez will have to maintain their recent production.
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