Luis Enrique riled by Messi substitution talk

Lionel Messi scored Barcelona's second goal of its 3-0 win at Camp Nou with an opportunistic free-kick but was surprisingly withdrawn with 64 minutes played.


Lionel Messi had played every minute of Barcelona's matches in 2017 before being substituted on Saturday.

Barcelona boss Luis Enrique refused to entertain questions over why he substituted Lionel Messi during Saturday's win over Athletic Bilbao. The Argentina captain scored his side's second goal of its > 3-0 win at Camp Nou with an opportunistic free-kick but was surprisingly withdrawn with 64 minutes played.

Messi, who had played every minute of Barca's matches in 2017 until that point, appeared to be initially frustrated to have been taken off, although he was seen joking with Luis Suarez, himself given a rest as an unused substitute, during the closing stages.

It is suspected that Luis Enrique was simply keen to give the 29-year-old extra rest before next Tuesday's Copa del Rey semifinal second leg against Atletico Madrid, but when asked to explain his decision, the head coach was far from forthcoming. "I will not comment," he told a news conference. "You always want the story but I don't want you to write this. I'm not going to give you this information."

Athletic started arguably the stronger of the two teams before Paco Alcacer struck a blow with his first league goal for the champion after 18 minutes. Luis Enrique was delighted to see the striker end his wait to find the net in La Liga and felt the goal helped kill off the early confidence shown by the visitor.

'Three fantastic points'

"I enjoyed it almost more than the goals that I scored," he said. "I am happy for Paco, not just because of the type of player he is, but also because of how he is as a person. I always have a special empathy for individuals who are keen to succeed. A game against Athletic is never comfortable. We tried to overcome the high pressing they did to us. We found spaces and the goals made us more relaxed, while it seemed to bother them. Then their physical level dropped.

"We're happy with the result, to see that the squad is competitive and also that we were able to make some rotations. We won three fantastic points."

Barca's win was soured by the loss of Gerard Pique to an adductor injury, while midfielder Rafinha sustained a nasty cut to the head after an accidental collision with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Luis Enrique believes Pique's problem was simply due to a hectic run of fixtures but could not say whether either will be available to face Atletico. "With Pique, it's an overload, a symptom of the calendar," he said. "The cut on Rafinha was impressive. I don't know yet if they will play on Tuesday."

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