By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It is a nice problem to have. Barcelona not so long ago remained largely dependent on Lionel Messi, yet in the absence of their finest footballer, the Argentine's fellow forwards have all stepped up of late. Now, however, with Leo ready to return, one will have to make way. So who will it be?
With Messi still feeling his way back after time out to recover from his hamstring injury, Barca began their first fixture of 2014 with Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez as the front three on Saturday, with Neymar left on the bench.
The trio did not disappoint. Alexis hit his first hat-trick for the Catalan club (which included a fantastic free kick), Pedro continued his fine form in front of goal with a clinical strike and an assist for the Chilean, while Cesc dropped deep to set up his side's second and also won a penalty in the 4-0 win over Elche at Camp Nou.
"I am very happy for players like Alexis and Pedro," Barca boss Gerardo Martino told the press afterwards. "They put in a lot of work and they have got their reward."
Pedro now has 15 goals in 26 games for the Blaugrana in 2013-14, having kicked on from a slow start to the season when he was restricted mainly to substitute appearances and admitted his frustration at his lack of playing time under Martino.
The decision to leave Neymar on the bench had surprised Barca fans, especially with Messi out, but Martino said: "Alexis looked sharper in the last few training sessions and I had to pick one of them."
The Brazilian looked less than amused to be on the sidelines and is unlikely to be happy to stay there for too long, even if Barca do have five more matches in January alone. Next up is the Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg at home to Getafe on Wednesday night but Barca will be more concerned with Saturday night's top-of-the-table tussle with Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon - and none of the team's in-form forwards will want to miss that one.
Asked if he knew which players would be in the side at Atletico, Martino replied: "In truth, I don't even know what the XI will be on Wednesday." He also refused to confirm Messi's participation in the clash with Diego Simeone's side. "I think he is mentally ready to play against Atletico but we won't pick anyone if they're not fully recovered," the coach warned. "If he doesn't feel right, he won't play."
However, Messi scored three times in a training game open to the public this week and is expected to build up his fitness work in readiness for Saturday's match, perhaps aided by a brief appearance on Wednesday at Camp Nou.
That means that Cesc is unlikely to feature in an advanced role on Saturday, while one of Alexis, Neymar and Pedro is also set to miss out. However, Tata dismissed the idea that Messi's return might cause any friction among the other forward players. "The return of the best player in the world will not overshadow the others," he argued. "On the contrary, with Leo we'll be even better."
Both Pedro and Alexis started in the 1-1 draw at Atletico in August, with Neymar on as a half-time substitute for Messi. The Brazilian later headed home to level the scores with his first Barcelona goal. Later, in the sides' second-leg Supercopa clash at Camp Nou, Pedro was the man to make way, although he did come off the bench to win a penalty (which was subsequently missed by Messi) in the goalless draw as Barca won the title on away goals.
Whoever is left out on Saturday, with either Pedro or Alexis the most likely at the moment, Martino at least has the comfort that he can call upon three in-form forwards - even if Messi is unavailable. "The sensations are good, we are in form and our best moment is yet to come," he enthused.
Ideal preparation, perhaps, for what will surely be his team's toughest test so far this season.
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