By Ben Hayward
Neymar is set for his first competitive start with Barcelona on Sunday as Lionel Messi misses the trip to Malaga to recover from the bruised thigh he picked up in the Spanish Supercopa against Atletico Madrid on Thursday.
The Catalans' €57 million summer signing from Santos lost seven kilos following surgery to remove his tonsils after Brazil's Confederations Cup win in June and has been gradually stepping up his training and match fitness ever since.
Neymar began on the bench as Barca battered Levante 7-0 last weekend and opened his goalscoring account for the Catalan club as he headed the equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Atletico on Thursday after replacing Pedro at the Vicente Calderon, but the 21-year-old is set for a more prominent role on Sunday.
"We will not put any pressure on Neymar," coach Gerard Martino said last week. "We want to integrate him into the team little by little."
And the Barca boss refused to reveal whether the Brazilian would start against Malaga as he addressed the media on Saturday. "Just because Messi is out, that doesn't mean Neymar will play - that he will be the one pulling the strings..." the Argentine explained. "We have lots of players [who can do that]: [Andes] Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc [Fabregas], Pedro..."
Nevertheless, Neymar is desperate to feature from the outset after his cameo appearances against Levante and Atletico, and Martino is unlikely to leave the club's new star on the bench for a third game in a row.
Instead, the Brazilian is primed for a starting spot against Malaga and is likely to be replaced late in the game if he is too tired to complete the full 90 minutes.
Messi, meanwhile, has been left out of the squad for the game in Andalucia to recover in time for the Supercopa second leg at home to Atleti on Thursday night, when Barca will look to claim their first silverware of the season.
"Leo is evolving well," Martino said on Saturday. "Leaving him out [for the Malaga game] is just a precaution."
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