Barcelona 0 Espanyol 0: Messi returns to glitter amid the Barça jitters

Click to follow
The Independent Football

If this was Barcelona's dress rehearsal, then the first night cannot come soon enough as far as Manchester United are concerned.

It was the Catalan derby and Barcelona's last realistic chance of catching the La Liga leaders, Real Madrid, but they failed to win and failed to score and, Leo Messi aside, they failed to inspire much confidence among their supporters ahead of Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first leg against the Premier League leaders.

With Thierry Henry nursing a fever that also ruled him out of training yesterday, Frank Rijkaard's side made it four games without a win – their worst run of form in five years. It was their second consecutive home game without scoring and only their 10th point from nine matches. Messi's return was the one crumb of comfort.

"I was happy to get the minutes" the Argentine striker said, after coming on at half-time. "I felt I stayed with the pace of the game without any problems."

Henry also sat on the bench but there he stayed for the duration, with Rijkaard admitting afterwards: "He had a bit of a fever and was not in a fit state to play."

The Frenchman has now gone over a week without training properly and must be in danger of missing his first date with English opposition since leaving Arsenal. Messi, however, is expected to start against United after he proved his fitness in 45 impressive second-half minutes. "We need 11 Messis" screamed the front of the local newspaper Sport and his importance to the European effort was later stressed by his team-mates.

The Italian right-back Gianlucca Zambrotta said: "It is very important that he is back against United because the whole season is at stake for us in this game."

Playing at the Nou Camp after 46 days out with a thigh injury, Messi sparked a drastic improvement on a woeful first half. Just a minute after coming on he tricked his way past three defenders to reach the byline and force a corner, and his close control and direct running were a threat throughout the rest of the second period. But there was no end product from those around him.

In a disjointed first half, rash finishing from Bojan Krkic and Eidur Gudjohnsen, among others, had let the visitors off the hook.

And although Messi's second-half introduction created more openings – many falling to Barcelona's most accomplished finisher, Samuel Eto'o – they were scorned all the same, with the Espanyol goalkeeper Carlos Kameni in superb form against his fellow Cameroon international.

After the final whistle there was a small demonstration against the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, with around 100 supporters gathered at the exit of the directors' box. Messi said: "The fans were with the team during the 90 minutes and I'm sure they will be right behind us on Wednesday."

Barcelona are clinging to the hope that changing competitions will bring different form and fortune. "We are having problems in the league but I think everything is going to be different on Wednesday," Zambrotta said.

Gudjohnsen said United's style could suit the Catalan side. "United are a team that always want to play football and they leave more space for the opposition than Liverpool and Chelsea," he said. "Those sides are stronger physically and without as much quality, but they play very deep, they are compact and they don't allow space for the opposition. I would rather leave one of those two sides for the final."

He also played down down United's second-leg advantage, saying Old Trafford's "theatre of dreams" tag was "perhaps an exaggeration". The midfielder Yaya Touré said: "The league is now very difficult but I am convinced we will beat United."

Messi's return is the only real justification for such confidence. He was top scorer in the competition before an injury against Celtic allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to overtake him. He has an added incentive after missing the final against Arsenal two seasons ago with injury.

"The Champions League motivates me more than ever," he said. "I could play no part whatsoever in the final in Paris and that still hurts. I have unfinished business with this competition and I want to win it."

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta, Puyol (Marquez, 66), Milito, Sylvinho; Xavi, Touré, Gudjohnsen (Iniesta, 45); Bojan, Eto'o, Giovani (Messi, 45).

Espanyol (4-2-3-1): Kameni; Zabaleta, Jarque, Torrejon, Chica; Angel, Moisés; Rufete (Riera, 58), Luis Garcia (Ewerthon, 58), Coro; Tamudo (Lola, 85).