Troubled Barcelona look to Messi for inspiration

Lionel Messi could be ready to play against Real Betis on Sunday and Barcelona could do with him back. — Courtesy photo

MADRID — Lionel Messi could be ready to play against Real Betis on Sunday and Barcelona could do with him back.

In other circumstances, Messi might have left it another week, having missed the whole of pre-season with a calf injury he sustained in his first training session back.

But after re-joining his teammates on Wednesday, the temptation will be to put Messi straight to work, to lift the mood and minimize the chances of what would be a disastrous second slip in La Liga.

One defeat, by Athletic Bilbao inside a bouncing San Mames on the opening night and inflicted by a freakishly brilliant bicycle kick in the 89th minute, might ordinarily have been accepted as a blip.

"San Mames is always a difficult place to play," said Gerard Pique. "When you're not at your best, they make you look stupid."

Yet memories of Barcelona's capitulation in May remain fresh.

The humiliation in the Champions League and submission in the final of the Copa del Rey mean this team and, in particular, their coach begin the season very much on the back foot.

Ernesto Valverde is never far from blame, suspicion about his style and suitability always bubbling under the surface, despite the fact he is hoping to become the first Barca coach since Pep Guardiola to win three La Liga titles in a row.

When Messi tweaked his calf, it was assumed an attacking roster of Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele would cope.

Instead, Suarez and Dembele both picked up strains against Bilbao while Griezmann delivered the sort of hesitant display to suggest he may also need time to adapt.

"This league is hard," Griezmann said. "We have to bounce back."

Another muscle injury for Dembele, his fifth in two years at Barcelona, is a concern, especially after the 22-year-old reportedly took time off in France instead of undergoing medical tests.

It all means Messi's return carries added urgency, even if it remains more likely the Argentinian will come off the bench at Camp Nou than be named in the starting line-up.

The lure of Neymar also grows, even if Barcelona are yet to agree a deal with Paris Saint-Germain. The prospect of Real Madrid jumping in too, surely plays on the mind of president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Coming into the season, it was Madrid with the darker clouds hanging over them after a poor pre-season left some wondering whether Zinedine Zidane, more than Valverde, would soon be feeling the heat.

Instead, a retro-looking side, without a single summer signing, and with Gareth Bale, opened up last weekend with an assertive 3-1 win away at Celta Vigo.

"We had difficulties in pre-season with our results but not our work," Zidane said. "It was essential to start this way, by playing well and winning."

Bale was excellent and with Eden Hazard not expected back until after the international break, the Welshman should continue his reintegration against Real Valladolid on Saturday.

"We have to turn over a new leaf," said Sergio Ramos. "We can't regret or celebrate what's happened before. We start from scratch."

Atletico Madrid made a winning start too, at home to Getafe, even if a slightly nervy 1-0 win felt rather familiar, despite a handful of attacking signings this summer, including the hugely talented Joao Felix.

Still, Getafe were arguably the toughest opponent to break down last season. Atletico might have more joy on Saturday away at Leganes.

Messi made me better player, says Ronaldo

In Lisbon, Cristiano Ronaldo admitted on Wednesday his long-time rivalry with Lionel Messi has made him "a better player" and that he enjoys a "healthy" rivalry with the Argentine great.

However, Portuguese star Ronaldo, whose influence at Real Madrid mirrored that of Messi at Barcelona before he left for Juventus, admitted that the pair have never socialized together.

"I really admire the career he has had and from his side, he has already talked of the disappointment when I left Spain because it was a rivalry that he appreciated," Ronaldo told TVI in Portugal.

"It's a good rivalry but it's not unique – Michael Jordan had rivalries in basketball, there was Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Formula 1. The thing they all had in common is that they were healthy rivalries."

Ronaldo and Messi have won the coveted Ballon d'Or five times each, a factor that helps each player flourish.

"I have no doubt that Messi has made me a better player and vice-versa. When I am winning trophies it must sting him and it's the same for me when he wins," he said.

"I have an excellent professional relationship because we have been sharing the same moments for 15 years.

He added: "We've never had dinner together but I don't see why we can't in the future. I don't see a problem with that." — AFP