Ben Hayward: Which Barcelona star makes way for Messi?

Alexis Sanchez hit a hat trick in the 4-0 win over Elche on Sunday, while Pedro and Neymar are both in fine form - but which one will drop out when the Argentine returns?
It is a nice problem to have. Barcelona not so long ago remained largely dependent on Lionel Messi, yet in his absence, 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 its first fixture of 2014 with Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez as the front three Saturday, with Neymar left on the bench.

The trio didn't 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, 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 said 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 acknowledged his frustration at his lack of playing time under Martino.


The Argentine is expected to start on Saturday, but is still recovering from injury and Martino made it clear he won't be risked if not 100 per cent.

The Brazilian was on great form before Christmas, but Tata told the press he had been behind Alexis in training and he will need to step up in the coming days.

Back in the team with a regular run of games, the Spain star has netted eight goals in his last six games to rediscover his very best form for the Blaugrana.

The Chilean is blossoming under Martino and hit his first hat-trick for the Catalan club on Saturday. He will be unlucky to miss out on such form.
Alexis, meanwhile, has netted 14 times this term (in just 24 games) and needs just one more to equal his tally from his debut season at the Catalan club, when he struck 15 in 41 matches. "Pedro and I always try to do our best when we are in the team and we are just happy to keep winning and to start the year so well," he said afterward. And he added: "Tata has given me the confidence a player needs."

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 does have five more matches in January alone. Next up is the Copa del Rey quarterfinal first leg clash at home against Getafe on Wednesday, but Barca will be more concerned with Saturday'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. 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 Wednesday at Camp Nou.

That means Cesc is unlikely to feature in an advanced role 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 said. "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 new signing Neymar on as a halftime substitute for Messi. The Brazilian later headed home to level the scores with his first Barcelona goal. And in the sides' second-leg Spanish 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 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," Tata said.

Ideal preparation, perhaps, for what will surely be his team's toughest test so far this season.

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