By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona captain Lionel Messi has returned to the La Liga leaders’ squad to play Real Betis on Sunday, getting the all-clear from doctors to play three weeks after breaking his arm, but forward Ousmane Dembele was left out.
Messi has been training in the last week and travelled with the team to Tuesday’s Champions League game against Inter Milan but did not make the bench for the 1-1 draw.
Barca’s record scorer was injured against Sevilla last month but the Catalans have fared well in his absence, beating Inter at home, thrashing Real Madrid 5-1 and defeating Rayo Vallecano in La Liga and edging Cultural Leonesa 1-0 in the Copa del Rey.
Coach Ernesto Valverde did not want to declare whether Messi was fit enough to play for 90 minutes against Betis but said the Argentine was no longer worried about relapsing.
“We’ll see tomorrow but he has lost the fear of falling over, of supporting himself, of clashing with opponents,” Valverde told a news conference.
“That’s the main thing, because these types of injuries limit you in those aspects. He is in good shape, certainly.”
Barcelona’s France defender Samuel Umtiti has also returned to the squad after over six weeks out with a knee problem.
Dembele was not included in the squad, however, two days after failing to turn up for training and, according to local media, not informing the club of his whereabouts for 90 minutes.
The 21-year-old France forward has struggled to fully adapt at Barca since signing for a then club record fee of 105 million euros ($119.01 million) in August 2017.
His playing time has been limited by a series of hamstring injuries and after falling foul of the club’s disciplinary code, including turning up late for a team meeting before the game with Inter in October.
Valverde said Dembele’s exclusion from the squad was not related to him missing training, batting away repeated questions about the player’s apparent problems with discipline.
“I haven’t lost patience with him, although everyone can interpret this as they wish. This is a team, sometimes players are called up to the squad and other times they are not,” he added.
“I look out for the team’s best interests. Ousmane has been starting games recently but right now he is not in the squad.
“The only thing we hope is that the team benefits from his talent and the club does too as they have made a great investment in him.”
($1 = 0.8823 euros)
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ken Ferris)