Barcelona coach Luis Enrique denied bizarre claims of a conspiracy surrounding injured talisman Lionel Messi before their Club World Cup final against River Plate in Japan on Sunday.
Messi missed Barca’s 3-0 semi-final win over Guangzhou Evergrande midweek with abdominal pains and Enrique reacted with bemusement on Saturday when an Argentine journalist insisted that Messi’s absence from public view was “mysterious”.
Shaking his head, Enrique said with a smile: “Oh, give me a break! Look, there’s no mystery. We haven’t hidden him or anything”.
To emphasise the point, moments later Messi jogged out to join training in Yokohama, raising the possibility he could play a part in the final when Barca will look to become the first team to win the title three times.
With Neymar also close to fitness after tweaking his groin, the European champions could unleash both of them against River alongside Luis Suarez, who scored a hat-trick on Thursday — the first ever at a Club World Cup.
“Messi and Neymar are both progressing nicely,” said Enrique without elaborating. “It’s a final and we expect a very tough game. We came here to be crowned the world’s best team but in a final there’s always a chance for an upset.”
River boss Marcelo Gallardo unsurprisingly said the Catalan giants were favourites, but Barca captain Andres Iniesta refused to get into any mind games before the final.
“I’m not buying into any of that,” said the Barcelona playmaker. “If we start saying we’re favourites then we could fall flat on our faces.”
– Penalty drama –
Iniesta admitted he wasn’t sure if the five-time kings of Europe would practice spot kicks in the event of being taken to penalties.
“I really don’t know,” he shrugged. “Hopefully we can win the game in regulation time so it doesn’t get to penalties. Penalties are bad for your heart.”
Barca captured the Club World Cup in 2009 when they beat Argentina’s Estudiantes 2-1 and again in 2011 when they thrashed Brazil’s Santos 4-0.
River, known as “los millonarios” because they are based in the wealthier northern suburbs of Buenos Aires and count politicians, business leaders and celebrities among their fans, won the old Intercontinental Cup in 1986.
“It’s a chance to make history,” said Gallardo, whose Copa Libertadores winners struggled to beat Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 in midweek but will be roared on by some 15,000 fans who made the trip from South America.
“Barcelona are the best team in the world and we hope Messi, Neymar and Suarez all play,” he added with a sheepish grin.
“You don’t get many opportunities to play games like this so we will play with big heart, look to attack and enjoy it.”
River goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero, expected to be the busiest man in the stadium on Sunday evening, echoed his manager’s comments.
“You dream of matches like this,” he said. “We want to pay back all the fans for making the long trip over to Japan.”