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Saturday, January 19, 2008
Messi to return for Santander clash

BARCELONA, January 19 (Primera Liga) - Barcelona welcome back Lionel Messi for Sunday's Primera Liga clash against Racing Santander at the Nou Camp.

The Argentina forward picked up an injury in the 3-0 win at Valencia in December and has been out of action for five weeks, but returns to give coach Frank Rijkaard a timely boost as his side look to close in on bitter rivals Real Madrid at the top of the table.

Messi has been named in the 18-man squad to face Racing, but Rijkaard reckons the South American is not ready to play 90 minutes.

'We won't be taking any risks,' said the Dutchman. 'He is an important player for us, but he is not ready to play 90 minutes yet. He needs to get his rhythm and match fitness back.'

Nevertheless, Messi could start on the right-hand side of Barcelona's three-pronged attack.

Deco could also return to the Barca line-up after making his return from injury in the Copa del Rey tie against Sevilla last Tuesday.

The presence of the Portugal playmaker means Andres Iniesta is likely to move forward to the left-hand side of the front three, in place of the injured Ronaldinho.

Samuel Eto'o is also unavailable after travelling to Ghana to represent Cameroon in the African Nations Cup.

His place will be taken by the in-form Thierry Henry, who set up two goals in the Catalans' 4-0 victory over Murcia last Saturday.

In midfield, the absence of Yaya Toure - he is also on African Nations Cup duty - means Mexico defender Rafael Marquez once again starts in the holding role, allowing captain Carles Puyol to start in his preferred role as centre-back alongside Gabriel Milito.

Barcelona are short of options on the bench, though, with Oleguer, Edmilson and Albert Jorquera all sidelined.

However, in light of the latter's injury, the club moved quickly to sign Celta Vigo goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto this week as back-up for Victor Valdes.

Pinto will be on the bench on Sunday.

Leaders Real Madrid face a tough derby clash away to local rivals Atletico this week and defeat could see the champions' lead cut to four points.

But Rijkaard wants his side to focus on their own match.

'I hope we can successfully complete our job, which is the most important thing. We have to try to win the largest amount of points possible and then we'll see. There are still lots of league games left and we believe in our possibilities,' he said.

However, Racing are enjoying an excellent season and Rijkaard knows his side will not have things all their own way on Sunday.

'They have been getting good results and not by chance. They are well organised, hard-working and have made a good impression this season,' he said.

Rijkaard also called for the notoriously quiet Barcelona fans to get behind his side.

'We need the fans to get behind us, but the team play a part in that because if the team play well, the supporters get more involved. But we definitely need their help in the difficult moments,' he said.

Racing are in great form and remain in sixth place after last weekend's excellent win at Osasuna.

Marcelino Garcia Toral's side were tipped for relegation at the start of the season, but look good value for their current standing and also advanced to the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday with an impressive 4-2 win over Real Zaragoza.

Garcia Toral claims his side will give priority to the cup, but still wants his team to go for an unlikely win at the Nou Camp on Sunday.

'We will go there to compete. Let's hope that Barcelona play really badly and that everything comes off for us, but it's going to be difficult,' he said.

Pedro Munitis is sidelined and Ayoze Diaz is suspended for the visitors.

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