Moment of truth
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said Monday that Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong will not feature against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League this midweek, instead being given a rest.
Barca travel to Ukraine on top of Group G with a perfect nine points after three games, three points ahead of second-placed Juventus, but they are a lowly 12th in La Liga after losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
“We’ve decided not to take Leo or Frenkie because our situation in the Champions League is quite comfortable,” Koeman told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s game.
Messi, 33, has played every Barca match so far this season and also played the full 90 minutes for Argentina four times over October and November.
Midfielder De Jong, who is 10 years Messi’s junior, has also played every match for the Catalan giants as well as five international fixtures for the Netherlands in the same period.
“The players need a break and we think it’s time for them to rest ... Both have played almost every minute and come from playing with their national teams,” Koeman added.
“Sometimes, you have to protect your players because the calendar is incredible.”
Injuries to several key players including Ansu Fati, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique have forced Koeman to rotate.
Antoine Griezmann and promising teen Pedri are expected to lead the attack while Clement Lenglet will lead the defence in the absence of both Pique, who picked up a knee injury on Saturday, and Samuel Umtiti.
Meanwhile, Messi was almost unrecognisable and so were Barcelona as a rare defeat by Atletico Madrid on Saturday cast further doubt over the direction of the Ronald Koeman project.
Atletico had not beaten Barca in the league since 2010, their 1-0 win at the Wanda Metropolitano a timely affirmation that they are contenders and arguably now favourites to win La Liga.
For Barca sitting 12th, albeit with a game or two in hand over some of those above them, the immediate blow of a third league defeat in eight games was compounded by a knee ligament injury to Gerard Pique, which leaves Koeman with only one fit central defender.
But perhaps more concerning is the sense that Koeman’s Barcelona appear already to be stalling, devoid of either a clear identity or renewed enthusiasm, both of which might have been expected to follow the appointment of a new coach.
“Like any coach, I am responsible,” said Koeman on Saturday. “We have to improve the results. We have to improve defensively and in attack and after that I can’t do anything more.”
It was almost a year ago that Ernesto Valverde was sacked mid-season with the team top of the table, both a jolt reaction to stodgy performances and a delayed one after historical Champions League failure.
His replacement Quique Setien arrived with a purist approach believed to be consistent with Barca’s DNA and for a while there were signs of it, only for results to dive and another split become unavoidable.
But Koeman’s first four months have brought neither the pragmatism to grind out results nor the imagination to impose a style that dominates opponents or endures through adversity. -AFP