Barcelona manager Luis Enrique has revealed the decision to leave Lionel Messi out of the starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Atletico Madrid was reached mutually between himself and the Argentine star.
Messi eventually stepped off the bench to score a classy winner in the closing stages, having been omitted from the starting XI for the first time since early January.
That game eight months ago resulted in Barca losing 1-0 at Real Sociedad and unleashed a flood of rumours claiming there was a serious rift between the manager and his star player.
On this occasion, however, Enrique was keen to point out that Messi was comfortable with his decision, which came at the end of a week that saw him play two games for Argentina in South America and then become a father for the second time to son Mateo.
“I spoke to Leo before the game and it was better not to take any risks,” explained the Nou Camp chief. “He is very important to the team and his fitness is key because the more he can play, the better.
“He had done a lot of travelling so we planned to bring him on in the second half so he could make the difference – as he did.”
The sentiment from the Barca boss was shared by midfielder Andres Iniesta who was adamant Messi was not angry about being left out.
“Leo is a unique player, he makes a difference and he did it again. I’m very happy for him and the team,” he said. “He’s not angry at being left out. It’s normal after the journey and everything that’s happened over the last few days.”
Enrique was also delighted by his team’s ability to overcome a series of absentees to claim three vital points against one of their biggest rivals.
Claudio Bravo, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Messi were all missing, and another blow came with a first half injury to Thomas Vermaelen, who is set to miss three weeks of action with a calf injury.
Despite those setbacks, however, Barca were dominant from the opening whistle and fully deserved their victory after creating several clear chances – although they had to do it the hard way after falling behind to an opener from Fernando Torres against the run of play.
“I enjoyed every minute of my team’s performance,” said Enrique. “We performed at a very high level from the start and were consistent throughout.
Opposition boss Diego Simeone reached the same conclusions, admitting that his team had been outplayed throughout the clash.
“Barcelona were better than us,” he conceded. “We tried to press high up the pitch, but the truth is we didn’t have a good game. The start of the second half gave us a goalscoring chance, which Torres finished nicely, but we failed to capitalise on that.”
Barca have now won each of the last five contests between the teams, and Simeone also accepted that his team are second best to the Catalan giants at the moment.
“Getting it right against Barcelona is a constant quest of ours. Hopefully we can do it another day,” he concluded.