Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard kept his cards close to his chest about who was going to take the field against Manchester United in their Champions League semi-final, first leg on Wednesday.
He refused to reveal whether his Argentine superstar Lionel Messi would start his first game in two months, after suffering a thigh injury in February, despite the widespread belief that he will be thrown into the fray.
“Messi is fine and he could start,” said Rijkaard, not giving a direct answer and so revealing any information to his opposite number Sir Alex Ferguson, at a press conference on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the big question mark seems to be who will play alongside Messi and Eto’o up front in what has been regularly dubbed ‘The Trident.’
He could opt for either of the teenagers Bojan Krkic or Giovanni dos Santos but may feel that the match is too big to gamble on their young nerves holding up.
Rijkaard also has the option of pushing the playmaker Andres Iniesta up front to roam down the right wing, as he has done on several previous occasions this season. There is also Thierry Henry to consider.
The French international striker had a truly dreadful game in the quarter-final, second leg against German side Schalke 04, which Barca won 1-0, just one of many lack-lustre outings in recent months.
He has also suffered from a high fever in recent days and missed training on Sunday and Monday before rejoining the squad on Tuesday.
“Henry’s training with the team and he could be ready but we’ll have to wait to see how he is and whether he plays,” said Rijkaard.
However, after winning a myriad of cups and trophies at club and country level, the one honour missing from Henry’s collection is a Champions League winners’ medal.
Rijkaard may be hoping Henry’s pride, and big game mentality, will help him forget his recent set backs and find the form that encouraged Barca to sign him from Arsenal for 24 million euros last summer.
“Deco is also back with team. We are now just waiting to see if he’s fully match fit,” added Rijkaard.
The one big absence for Barcelona, apart form the injured and unsettled Ronaldinho, is the suspension of captain Carles Puyol.
“Even though we are missing some important players, like Puyol, the main thing is that the rest of the players are all fit. It’s true that we are going to miss him (Puyol) but if the players rally round and find their own fighting spirit then I think we can win without him.
“Whoever plays, the team that plays tomorrow night could be capable of making another page in Barca history. My dream is the fans get behind the players and motivate them. Not only here, but away from home as well.”
All the expectations are that Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium will be filled to its massive 98,000 capacity for only the second time this season, the only other occasion being the derby against Real Madrid on December 22.
The last thing that Rijkaard wants now is for the Barcelona faithful to turn on him, his players or even president Joan Laporta, as they have done on several occasions in recent months, if things do go the right way from the start.
In turn, Barcelona’s fans are hoping that with United playing fellow semi-finalists Chelsea in a crunch match which could decide the Premiership on Saturday, Ferguson and his squad will be suitably distracted in the Nou Camp.
However Rijkaard didn’t subscribe to that theory on Tuesday, leading to his plea for support from the stands.
“I don’t know for sure whether United will have one eye on that game (against Chelsea) but every team’s dream is to have as many big games as possible so I don’t think they will be affected for tomorrow’s game.
“But both teams are likely to have some nerves and tension,” added the Dutch man, who must have a few nerves of his own ahead of a match which could decide his future.
The winners of the semi-final will go through to meet either Liverpool or Chelsea in the Champions League final, which this year is being staged for the first time in Moscow on May 21.
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