Guardiola welcomes return of Iniesta

Barcelona playmaker back in side depleted by injuries to Fabregas, Sanchez and Piqué
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The Independent Football

Barcelona will be counting on Lionel Messi to maintain his excellent scoring form when they host Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League tonight.

Messi's pair of goals in a 3-0 victory over Racing Santander on Saturday took the Argentina striker's season tally to 16 from 12 games and kept the Spanish champions top of La Liga.

The defending European champions face the first of back-to-back games against Plzen starting at the Nou Camp. Barcelona and Milan share the lead in Group H on four points , with the Italian champions beginning a double-header against Belarusian side BATE Borisov, who have a single point along with Plzen.

"These are two important games, six points to be won," said Barcelona defender Eric Abidal, whose team opened the group with a draw against Milan. "We know that if we can reach 10 points we are practically in the next round."

Messi's impressive scoring run has taken him to second on the club's all-time scoring list with 196 goals but masks a succession of injury problems at the Catalan club.

Andres Iniesta returned on Saturday against Santander after sustaining an injury in the match against Milan last month. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez are still sidelined and defender Gerard Piqué will be out for at least a further two weeks after damaging his leg for the second time this season.

Coach Pep Guardiola was pleased to have Iniesta back at his disposal and eager to see the midfielder back controlling the midfield. "You should have seen him training this week," Guardiola said. "For him the important thing is to be happy. He is a different kind of player, a gem. We hope he can help us a lot."

Plzen are coming off a 2-0 defeat by Milan and a 1-1 draw in domestic play, but Guardiola insists he will not be complacent. "I will put the team on the pitch that I think is best suited to win the game," the Catalan coach said.

Plzen's players have no illusions about the difficult task ahead. "Originally, I thought we could use two goalkeepers," Plzen playmaker Pavel Horvath said in jest. "Of course, there's fear that we could concede eight goals. But I believe if we're able to play as a team we can at least complicate a little bit Barcelona's position as a clear favourite."

Milan look to maintain their solid European campaign at the San Siro against a BATE side that Barcelona beat 5-0. Milan are badly in need of some momentum to carry into their faltering Serie A campaign; they recorded only their second win in the league, 3-0 against Palermo, at the weekend.

Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic set up two of those goals, easing some worries after the Swedish international said he was not enjoying playing any more. "I can assure you that Ibrahimovic never stopped enjoying himself," Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said.

Seven-time champions Milan may miss defender Thiago Silva, who is a doubt with a left thigh injury, while striker Alexandre Pato is still out with a right thigh problem.

Meanwhile, German legend Franz Beckenbauer wants Fifa's task force to tackle the offside law and make it simpler for referees to interpret after a weekend of quirky decisions from German match officials. Beckenbauer is chairman of the Fifa panel that suggests law changes to the board of the world governing body of soccer. The panel meets next week.

"I've put it on the agenda," Beckenbauer told Bild newspaper yesterday. "All members of the commission should think about it, so that we can discuss it. Offside has become too complicated. We don't have to go back to the stone age of football but to return to a simpler interpretation. The referee should, for example, disallow a goal only when the goalkeeper is clearly hindered by the offside player," Beckenbauer said.

Beckenbauer also proposed doing away with a mandatory red card for a player denying an obvious scoring opportunity in the penalty area.

"If it's a harmless foul, a penalty and a yellow card are enough. Red only for brutal attacks. The referee should have some freedom of choice," Beckenbauer said. Fifa rules stipulate that a red card is mandatory when the player brought down is heading directly toward the goal with a clear scoring opportunity.