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Messi, Pique return to the comforts of Barca after trying international break

After a seemingly endless international break full of off-the-pitch drama, Barcelona will be back in action in La Liga when they meet the ultra-competitive Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday. With both teams prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain the perfect starts to their domestic league campaigns, expect sparks to fly once again between two of the most dominant powers in Spanish football.
While facing the no-nonsense side managed by Diego Simeone is always a challenge, Luis Enrique's lack of time to prepare the match appropriately because of 14 players being absent on international duty for the past 10 days will inevitably hurt the Blaugranas' chances in the Spanish capital. Although Ivan Rakitic was the only international who returned to Barcelona without a win, the Asturian manager would have preferred to have his regular starters working alongside him during the week instead.
Nobody can deny that the current Liga and European champions are the favourites going into the game because of the strength of the starting XI that Luis Enrique will be able to field at the Calderon. The Blaugranas, currently on a 16-game unbeaten streak in the league, are not prepared to waste a golden chance to make it 11 wins in their last 12 road games.
However, the hosts are more than likely going to rely on their intensity, physicality and robust defensive system in order to ensure the three points remain in Madrid. Simeone, who has surprisingly only led his club to two draws and five defeats against Barcelona in La Liga, will have been working ferociously behind the scenes to find a way to cause an upset.
As it couldn't be any different, the Catalans' chances of success will be heavily dependent on Lionel Messi's performance after travelling halfway across the globe to fulfil his duties with Argentina, then missing training on Friday due to the birth of his second son.

Tired or not, the quadruple Ballon d'Or winner has clearly demonstrated to be head and shoulders above any other player in world football right now thanks to his sharpness, unique ability to punish rivals' weaknesses and unstoppable goal-scoring skill. Experience clearly tells us that La Pulga may have planned another outstanding showing to celebrate the arrival of baby Mateo.
Messi netted a double in less than 25 minutes in La Albiceleste's 7-0 victory over Bolivia on Saturday. Three days later, a late strike from the diminutive No. 10 helped his national team salvage a late 2-2 draw against Mexico. Two games, three goals; job done, right?
Inexplicably, the vast majority of Argentinean media reported once again that his performances were far from the level of excellence he demonstrates week in, week out for Barcelona -- conveniently overlooking the obvious fact that it was his sole influence that ensured La Albiceleste didn't end their second match empty-handed after dominating the game and wasting a disappointing amount of chances.
It truly looks as if Messi will never fully win the hearts of his compatriots, however hard he tries. Cules can simply not wait to see the day when the severe criticism their star player receives whenever he represents Argentina dies down once and for all; although nobody in the Catalan capital is holding their breath, fully aware that the many critics who are currently hiding in the shadows will come back at to growl as soon as their national team fails to fulfil their incredibly high expectations.
Gerard Pique, left, and Lionel Messi return to the comforts of Barcelona after trying international breaks.
Messi will most certainly be accompanied by partners in crime Neymar and Luis Suarez in the front line at the Calderon. While La Pulga's emotional connection with international teammate Sergio Aguero goes back well over a decade, there's no denying that the No. 10 feels far more comfortable when supported by Neymar's speed from the wings and has Suarez battling against the rivals' centre-backs and generating spaces for him as a result.
After experiencing continued abuse from the Spanish crowd while defending Spain on international duty, many would have thought that Gerard Pique may be glad about being unavailable for the match against Atletico. Judging by the No. 3's words on Thursday, he truly doesn't mind being the target of rivals' hatred.
"For me, the whistling at the Santiago Bernabeu is a symphony for my ears," he explained without a bit of hesitation in his voice. Certainly not the best way to defuse the situation, but then again his defiant personality is what makes him so loved among the Blaugrana fan base.
It certainly would have been hugely interesting to see how the Catalan centre-back would have been received by the Atletico supporters only hours after publicly expressing his unconditional joy whenever Real Madrid fails to win a match. Would the fact of having the same common enemy have prevented Pique from being constantly jeered at the Calderon? We will have to wait until next season to find out, unfortunately.
It is no secret that Barcelona are traditionally vulnerable after an international break. However, Luis Enrique's inability to prepare the game as well as he would have hoped can't be used as an excuse and, while Simeone's Atletico will be a tough obstacle in their way, nothing less than victory will do.
Prince Nnamdi

Prince Nnamdi

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