All eyes on possible Messi return

Lionel Messi could make an earlier return than expected against Inter Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday but Barcelona have hardly missed him.

Four wins out of four, including a stroll past Inter Milan and a hammering of Real Madrid so severe it cost their coach his job, mean Messi reunites with a team enjoying its strongest run of the season, ironically without its star striker.

Barca will certainly be delighted, relieved even, when his recovery is complete. The club have named Messi in their squad for the match at the San Siro, even if he is yet to be given the medical all-clear.

It could be his involvement is either as a substitute or even delayed until Sunday, when Barca host Real Betis in La Liga.

Perhaps it will depend on how much Barca need him and, in that respect, Messi's absence has been less pronounced than many predicted 15 days ago when he tumbled and broke his right arm against Sevilla.

Circumstances have helped. After Inter, came Real, who were in a mess, Cultural Leonesa, who play in Spain's third tier, and Rayo Vallecano, who are 19th in the table.

But wins, in any form, cannot be overlooked. Real's against Real Valladolid on Saturday was their first in six league games.

More crucially, key players have delivered while others, less prominent, have stepped up.

Luis Suarez scored twice on Saturday, the second an 89th-minute winner to complete a late comeback against Rayo. After six games without a goal, he has now hit six in his last four.

Do-or-die for Spurs

Desperate to avoid Champions League elimination at the group stage for the second time in three years, Tottenham face a do-or-die clash against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday.

Mauricio Pochettino's side are third in Group B after taking just one point from their first three matches.

Tottenham's exit from Europe's elite club competition would be confirmed if they lose to PSV at Wembley and second-placed Inter Milan beat group leaders Barcelona.

Even a draw against PSV won't be enough if Inter win.

That would be another wretched conclusion to a Champions League campaign that began with high hopes for Tottenham.

After failing to get past the group stage two seasons ago, Tottenham appeared to announce their arrival on the European stage with an impressive group victory over Real Madrid last term.

Inconsistent Atletico

Atletico Madrid's underwhelming start to the season might have been overshadowed by the crisis enveloping city rivals Real but there will be no place to hide against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.

A fortnight ago Dortmund dealt Diego Simeone's side a 4-0 drubbing, Atletico's heaviest defeat since the coach took charge 392 matches ago, while on Saturday they were held to a 1-1 draw by lowly Leganes, 18th in La Liga and with six defeats already to their name.

This was supposed to be Atletico's year, primed for a title challenge by some impressive signings in the summer and eyeing a run at the Champions League, pumped by the prospect of a final inside their own Wanda Metropolitano in June.

Their failings against Dortmund and Leganes were more striking because they were caused by weaknesses in defence, their strong point under Simeone.

Dortmund pounced on Atletico to hit three in 10 minutes at the Signal Iduna Park, while on Saturday Leganes equalised thanks to lax marking at a free-kick.

Atletico are cast in Simeone's image and have rarely been easy on the eye during his tenure. After scoring from a nine-pass move against Huesca last month, the coach said: "I liked it because it ended with a goal."

Their backline in recent years has been the hardest to breach in Europe. "Nobody has the perfect way of playing," Simeone said last week. "It is about a pursuit of winning."

Weaker defending has placed greater demand on the attack but Antoine Griezmann's partnership with Diego Costa, so effective last season, appears to have lost its spark.

Costa has one goal all season and is yet to get off the mark in La Liga. After turning 30 last month, it is tempting to wonder if the Spaniard's best days are now behind him.

Simeone remains loyal to Costa as he shares his best qualities -- grit, determination, an unrelenting will to win -- with his striker. They also define Atletico at their best.

 

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All eyes on possible Messi return

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